City of Fremantle Happiness Department – Lefty Bullshit or Good Governance?

by Tim Grey-Smith



It was November 2009. Six bright eyed, slightly nervous new councillors and six slightly less excitable returning ones entered the hallowed halls of the Esplanade Hotel Conference Room, flanked by senior City staff and entered a two day facilitated lockdown. It was an odd process. We were asked to define five strategic priorities that would guide the City moving forward. However as a new councillor, my deep understanding of the inner workings of the City and what it really needed were still a mystery.

As a result, I just re-hashed what I knew at the time, which was all the feedback I’d had from the community through the election period, combined with some slightly informed opinions of my own. None of these items were of any real strategic importance, although they did all make it into the document in some form. The senior staff were very vocal through this process, they were professionals and they knew what they needed to see in the plan for them to move forward in their own departments. It would be naive to think they weren’t steering the entire process, and it would have been wrong to stop them. The end result, after much wordsmithing and consternation, was the City of Fremantle Strategic Plan 2010 – 2015. If I had a time machine, I would go back to that workshop, skip the overcooked beef at the buffet and demanded that we create a sixth directive, and make the Happiness of our ratepayers a strategic priority.

It’s not a new idea. The tiny nation of Bhutan has been measuring Gross National Happiness since the term was first coined in 1972 by the Fourth Dragon King (what a title!) Jinge Singye Wangchuck (what a name!), as a method of applying Buddhist spiritual values to measure the nations general well-being. The four pillars of GNH are sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment and establishment of good governance. Over time, this work has been further defined into eight general contributors to happiness: physical, mental and spiritual health; time-balance; social and community vitality; cultural vitality; education; living standards; good governance; and ecological vitality. Whilst the measure isn’t as quantifiable as GDP, and isn’t perfect by any measure, the role of “liveability” indexes are becoming more common as many people start looking for more holistic approaches to societal growth.

So how would this idea of a “Happiness Department” apply to the City of Fremantle? Obviously the scope of such work at a local level is much more limited than as defined above, but I believe a deliberate attempt to drill down into the emotional health of our citizens and do what we can do increase their happiness, or at the very least remove some of the frustrations, would be a worthy exercise and money well spent.

For example, one of the biggest frustrations I had while serving on the Planning Services Committee was the amount of neighbour disputes that clogged up the process. One infamous warring set of neighbours kept the entire committee enthralled for an hour while they disputed .38m2 of encroachment. Apart from the real and obvious angst that was felt by the parties concerned, the opportunity cost of this dispute was that by the end of it, everyone was so tired we rushed through quite a large strategic planning issue without the debate it really deserved.

A Happiness Officer (sign me up!) would have the remit to look at issues like this, and look at the idea of happiness of ratepayers in general, and see how they could build better communities, and basically stop people “sweating the small stuff”. They could encourage street parties, get neighbours to know each other better and with better relationships, perhaps avoiding some of these conflicts. If we could remove five neighbour disputes that ended up at the State Administrative Tribunal (SAT), the position of Happiness Officer would become cost positive in short order.

The Happiness Department could also look at council processes themselves, finding common frustrations with overly bureaucratic process and introducing some common sense. I believe that even the community knowledge that there is someone working internally to remove frustrating processes would remove some frustration in its own right.

Whilst on the surface this concept might seem a bit twee, I believe there are real and effective outcomes that could be achieved by such a department. What do you think? If we had a Happiness Officer at the City of Fremantle, what would you get them to do?