To address such complex issues, we need better forms of engagement between the public and decision-makers. 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.
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
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 new approach.
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. Because meaningful engagement requires detailed understanding of the local context and local relationships, we are currently limiting our focus to Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland.
We are asking what they think about current forms of citizen engagement: what works? What does not? How can we ensure that all of the voices are heard? Should we tailor forms of engagement to suit different groups? How can we diagnose different kinds of barriers that prevent individuals and groups from participation? Can engagements exist if they’re not based on longstanding relationships?
Here are the kinds of things we hear from our project participants:
Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland is a thriving city with a diverse and growing population. Its unique geography and natural environment make it a desirable place to live and work. But this also creates challenges for further growth and infrastructure development.
Climate change is affecting how we live, and how we think about the future. Auckland’s recent drought and water shortage have made it clear that we need resilient water and wastewater systems. This is especially important as the city continues to grow. How do we make decisions on which path to take and which investments to make so that we can secure a vibrant future for all Aucklanders?
Watercare is owned by Aucklanders and must make long-term decisions on everyone’s behalf. We need to decide what our next source of water should be. With water, people often believe the solutions are simple. But each different option is complex and there are trade-offs that we need to understand. If a wide variety of Aucklanders get good information, understand each other, and come together around a shared decision, Watercare would be wise to take this advice.
We want to solve this difficult problem together.
In July and August 2021, we held four workshops across Auckland: in West, Central and South Auckland, and the North Shore. Using Watercare customer database we invited several thousand citizens to participate. Out of the several hundred who expressed their interest, we selected four groups of 30-35 whose demographic composition mirrored the makeup of our city. We did not expect participants to have a lot of knowledge about the water system. Instead, we looked for a range of lived experiences.
Over the course of a morning, the groups learnt together about the pressures on the urban water supply, the future scenarios, other people’s experiences and viewpoints on Auckland’s water. They heard about the four main options that the Watercare identified as environmentally, technically and economically possible. To hear more about how the workshops went and what we want to do next, listen to this podcast.
Anne Bardsley and Kristiann Allen have worked in the previous Office of the Chief Science Advisor under Sir Peter Gluckman. Working on a range of complex topics from agricultural greenhouse gases to the health impact of methamphetamine contamination, they have come to appreciate the intricate dance between evidence, political decision-making and public opinion.
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.
Julia Büdler is a Masters student whose project explores the politicians’ views of deliberative engagement processes.
Campbell Guy is a Masters student writing a dissertation outlining the potential of deliberative democracy to improve water governance.
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.
Jenny Wigley is a researcher working at Watercare, tasked with encouraging public participation in key infrastructure and investment decisions.
Are you a student interested in our work?
If you are in your final undergraduate year and would like the opportunity to work with us, check out our offer in this year’s University of Auckland Summer Research Studentship Programme.
The Complex Conversations 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.