Developing better ways to engage the public around complex issues

A University of Auckland transdisciplinary research programme
public consultation meeting
Complex Conversations is a research programme based at Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures focused on innovating and improving citizen involvement in public decisions around complex issues.

We need ways in which the values and lived experiences of diverse social groups can be brought to the table alongside the necessary technical knowledge to inform the issues. We need this done in formats that work for Aotearoa New Zealand communities, because we know that current large-scale consultation approaches miss or side-line some voices. We also know that attempts to fix this can still miss the mark if they don’t align with communities’ own practices and traditions.

From digital tools to citizens’ assemblies, our research is committed to making public engagement more inclusive, informed and constructive.

What are complex conversations and why do we need them?

The problem

Aotearoa New Zealand is facing many complex problems: from the current pandemic to the growing threat of climate change, as well as housing and mental health crises. Solving them requires complex scientific and technical knowledge but acting on them without taking account of lived experiences risks perpetuating, or even worsening, current inequities. And even the best solutions require political will: while decision makers at all government levels may have the authority to act, to do so they need to know where their electorate stands.

The public is regularly asked for its views via surveys, town halls and written submissions to select committees, royal commissions and boards of inquiry. Yet these forms of engagement have also been seen to reinforce inequality (because participation implicitly requires education, money and trust). Social media has opened up new and ostensibly direct communication channels between citizens and decision-makers. And while it may appear democratic, it is based on algorithms that favour frequent, short engagement and strong reactions. Rather than building understanding and consensus, social media groups lead to deeper polarizations.

Finally, there is also the question of who does the work of engagement and how does this person or group build and maintain the necessary trust?

While decision makers may have the authority to act, to do so they need to know where their electorate stands

We believe that we need better forms of engagement between the public and decision-makers.

Drawing on the academic field of deliberative democracy and relevant disciplines e.g. politics, education and science studies; and on indigenous and local knowledge, we are testing new formats of public engagement on questions of high public importance.

Our approach

In response to this problem, we have assembled a multidisciplinary team from the University of Auckland, with expertise in politics, science, science and technology studies, and education to develop and test a range of new approaches and methodologies adapted to the Aotearoa NZ context.

Our project draws upon all of these fields, together with scholarship on deliberative democracy, and from local knowledge, worldviews and practices (mātauranga and tikanga Māori). We will test elements of an approach using questions of high public importance today.

In the media

Read and hear more about our
community workshops with Watercare

Greater Auckland:

Using Deliberative Democracy to explore the future of Auckland’s water supply
i read now…

Beyond Consultation:

Deliberative Democracy for the future of Auckland’s water
listen now…

Meet our team

Our team brings together expertise across diverse
academic fields and professional experiences

Project Leaders

Tatjana Buklijas has a background in social studies of science and medicine. She is interested in the ways in which scientific knowledge is created and deployed in changing political and social circumstances.

Anne Bardsley has a background in science and expertise in synthesising evidence for use in policy and public decision-making. Her work is highly transdisciplinary, involving systems thinking and futures methodologies, as well as innovations to support public reasoning and deliberation.

Kristiann Allen has a background in anthropology and has worked at the intersection of science and public policy in multiple contexts internationally, including provincial, federal and multi-lateral systems, through which she has come to appreciate the intricate dance between evidence, political decision-making and public opinion.

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal (Marutūahu, Ngāti Raukawa and Ngā Puhi) is the Strategic Advisory Māori for Koi Tū. He has written and advised extensively on aspects of mātauranga Māori and iwi histories and traditions. Previously he was Professor of Indigenous Development; and Director, Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, University of Auckland.


Project Team

Jacquie Bay comes from an education background and has experience in developing learning programmes that help people explore their frames of reference with regard to socio-scientific issues.

Campbell Guy is a Masters student writing a dissertation outlining the potential of deliberative democracy to improve water governance.

Jenny Wigley is a researcher working at Watercare, tasked with encouraging public participation in key infrastructure and investment decisions.

Julia Büdler is a Masters student whose project explores the politicians’ views of deliberative engagement processes.

The Smart Ideas project was officially launched by our team at the 2020 Knowledge and Democracy conference hosted by
Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures. Find out more and see us in action here.

About Koi Tū

Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures is an independent, transdisciplinary think tank and research centre at the University of Auckland.

We generate knowledge and analysis to address critical long-term national and global issues challenging our future.



Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures
The University of Auckland
Level 7, Building 804, 18 Waterloo Quadrant, Auckland Central 1010
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Twitter: @InformedFutures


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Phone: 027 271 9907