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 climate change to housing and mental health crises. Solving them requires complex scientific and technical knowledge. Yet producing and implementing solutions without taking account of lived experiences of people who will be affected by them 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 they may appear democratic, they are based on algorithms that favour frequent, short engagement and strong reactions. Rather than building understanding and consensus, social media groups lead to deeper polarizations.


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. Together with holders of local and indigenous knowledge, worldviews and practices (mātauranga and tikanga Māori) we are developing and testing a range of new approaches and methodologies adapted to the Aotearoa New Zealand context.

We are testing, adapting and developing methods that expand and improve the existing democracy toolbox. We work with the methodology and scholarship coming from the field of deliberative democracy. These approaches offer ways to reach groups that rarely take part in participatory engagements, and support them to reach considered, shared judgments backed by deep deliberation. We consider such approaches to produce results that are more equitable and better informed than those achieved through direct democracy (referenda) or through participatory democracy (town halls, submissions, etc).

Furthermore, we use online software tools, such as and, for collecting, sorting, visualising and analysing where people stand on a particular issue, and why. These tools allow participants to express their views and reasoning behind them, in their own words, and have those visible to others taking part.  With their potential to capture a greater diversity of views than standard surveys, they can harness collective intelligence to promote the emergence of new ideas.

In the media

Read and hear more about our work

Koi Tū:

Shaping the future of transport in Auckland
and read the results in our report
watch now…

Shaping Tomorrow Together:

Exploring the deliberative democracy journey
feat. Anne Bardsley
watch now…


100 randomly chosen Aucklanders opt for time-of-use charging
read now…

Koi Tū webinar:

Democratic innovation – why we need it and how to do it with Art O’Leary and Colin Megill
watch now…


The road to water recycling
10-part series
read now…

Read more:

  • April 2024: “What people really think of cycleways and other transport revelations” by Simon Wilson, New Zealand Herald (paywall)
  • September 2022: “Citizen assemblies offer hope for democracy and climate change challenges” Newsroom
  • December 2021: (with Campbell Guy) “Let the people have their say on Three Waters” Newsroom

Other connected pieces:


  • March 2023: “The unexpected result of sharing difficult decision-making with citizens”, by Jack Santa Barbara, Newsroom
  • February 2023: “Explaining citizens’ assemblies – how they could make politics fit for the future” (interview with Jonah Franke), Stuff
  • November 2022: “Proposal to break central-local deadlock on Three Waters and climate”, by Jonathan Milne, Newsroom
  • September 2022: “Direct recycled water recommended as Auckland’s next source of water”, by Caroline Williams, Stuff
  • September 2022: “Wastewater suggested as next water source for Auckland”, by Laura James, 1News.
  • August 2022: “A democratic tool for the climate emergency” by Pat Baskett, Newsroom
  • July 2022: “Citizen assemblies could dramatically shift how Auckland is run as a city”, by Todd Niall, Stuff
  • October 2021: “Using Deliberative Democracy to explore the future of Auckland’s water supply”, by Tatjana Buklijas, Greater Auckland
  • September 2021: “Deliberative Democracy for the future of Auckland’s water”, Beyond Consultation

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 former Masters student whose dissertation outlined the potential of deliberative democracy to improve water governance. Now working in the local government, Campbell is continuing his practitioner and advocacy work in deliberative democracy.

Jillian Hildreth is a PhD student whose research explores the potential of deliberative democracy methods in health communication. She is using her design and communication skills to support many of the Complex Conversations projects.

Finlay Harvey has the background in human geography. Since early 2022, he has been project-managing many of our projects. 



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

Julia Büdler is a former Masters student and Kupe scholar whose project explored the politicians’ views of deliberative engagement processes.

A/Prof Matheson Russell is a political philosopher researching deliberative democracy.

Dr Nicolas Pirsoul, who worked in the early stages of the Watercare citizens’ assembly, continues his association with the team even after his move to Melbourne where he is helping embed deliberative democracy in local government. 

Simon Wright specialises in designing and evaluating deliberative approaches to decision-making including using online tools.

John Pennington is interested in deliberative approaches to decision-making, agenda setting and social learning. 

Lee Ryan is an experienced facilitator and qualitative researcher.

Alex King is a former Honours student and Kupe scholar who assisted with the transport forum project. He is currently a policy advisor at the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. 




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