Developing better ways to engage the public around complex issues

A University of Auckland transdisciplinary research project funded by the MBIE Endeavour Smart Ideas project fund.
public consultation meeting

Aotearoa New Zealand is facing many complex problems: from the current pandemic to the growing threat of climate change, as well as housing, poverty and mental health crises. Solving them requires more than scientific and technical knowledge – it also means understanding the trade-offs associated with different approaches and outcomes, and the value placed on them by various affected groups.

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.

Our approach

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 developing new formats of public engagement that we intend to trial in Auckland 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 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.

Our project consists of two parts:

Engaging with communities

Understanding current practices and experiences of public engagement, including what’s working and what’s not working for communities

The Watercare project

Trialling a deliberative process and learning from our experiences

Engaging with communities

Understanding current practices and
experiences of public engagement

In the first part of the project, from late 2020 onwards, we are conducting interviews and focus groups with engagement professionals working in Auckland’s public organizations and government bodies as well as community members.

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:

“There are things that people would say to our faces that they probably would not say on Facebook feedback. (…) my preference is that people try and locate me and have a conversation with me. Or if I see a comment where I think, gee, that’s a really interesting view, that’s different from everyone else, I might send them a private message just to say, Hey, you got five minutes? Can I give you a call? Or can you elaborate on what you’re thinking.”

- Local politician

“If you know what we know, in local government, government in general, we can argue over $8,000 for two hours, and we pass billion-dollar budgets without batting an eyelid because there is really little concept of what a billion dollars is. You know, everyone knows what $8,000 is. So, when we put out a draft of the long-term plan, that’s over 100 pages long. And to expect people to digest something like that, to read it, to understand it, and these are mostly non-technical folks, and ask them to engage is not, you know, it’s not practical, it’s not pragmatic, and it’s not going to happen. So, it’s about how do we get the message, right?”

- Engagement professional

Our work with Watercare

Complex conversations about the future
of Auckland’s precious water supply

The problem

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 complicated 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. We are looking for Aucklanders from different backgrounds to take part in our workshops.

Over 2021, we will be actively seeking out Aucklanders with a wide range of different backgrounds to participate in workshops and discussions so that we can solve difficult problems together.

Our approach

In July and August 2021, we will hold four workshops across Auckland: in West, Central and South Auckland, and the North Shore. We are inviting a wide range of citizens to a conversation with our research team, water experts, and other community members. We do not expect participants to have a lot of knowledge about the water system. Instead, we are looking for a range of lived experiences.

Over the course of a morning, the groups will learn together about the options, the issues and other people’s viewpoints on Auckland’s water. The aim is to work together so that we understand the trade-offs and why people think the way they do. Conclusions, questions and observations made during these workshops will then feed into ongoing engagement between citizens, stakeholders and Watercare, to assist future decision-making.  

Decision-makers can’t help but hear from the loudest people who insist on being heard. And that’s good. Yet Watercare belongs to all the people of Auckland, and we are trusted to make decisions on behalf of everybody.
We’ve always cared deeply about our customers, but I believe this process will help us getting even closer by engaging with Aucklanders, the loud ones and the not so loud ones, in a way that allows them to directly influence decisions on our city’s water future.

- Amanda Singleton, Watercare Executive

Meet our team

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

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 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.

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.

Last year our team officially launched the Complex Conversations project at the Knowledge and Democracy conference hosted by
Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures. Find out more and see us in action here.


Find out more about deliberative democracy and the
thinking behind the Complex Conversations project

Website links

NewDemocracy Foundation
Access an assortment of valuable resources at


Centre for Deliberative Democracy
Beyond Consultation podcast

A radical proposal for true democracy
Hélène Landemore talks to Ezra Klein


Articles and reports

Catching the deliberative wave
OECD report on deliberative democracy

Film and interactive media

When Citizens Assemble
Documentary film

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


Phone: 027 271 9907