As delegates were leaving the American Constitutional Convention in 1787, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin: “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”. Franklin replied: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
He meant that, while the delegates had recommended a set of principles for government, it was up to average citizens to make them work in practice. That meant – and still means – having citizens who are informed and active in public debates over what and how we should proceed as a society, rather than citizens who will passively accept being ruled.
I believe in representative democracy. It isn’t a perfect system, but it’s better than the alternatives. This model of government is most compatible with long-run social and economic prosperity, and with an expansion of human freedom and capabilities.
But hard work is needed to maintain and improve it. It’s not enough to just have the option to vote every three years. During and between elections, it’s vital to carry on an informed public conversation on policy issues. It doesn’t matter if it’s happening on the radio and in the newspaper, in church halls and cafes and public meetings, or in blogs written by unpaid volunteers. But it needs to happen.
I stress the words “informed” and “public”. It is important for the debate to be informed by facts and evidence, because they are essential for grounding conversations between different points of view. People with different values and principles can have an intelligent conversation if they are able to build on a common set of facts. For instance, when people who care mainly about predictable driving times talk to people who care mainly about safe cycling facilities, it would be useful to know what the research says about the impact of cycle lanes on driving speeds.
It is equally important for the discussion to be happening in public, where citizens in general can engage with it and respond to it. Discussions between politicians and lobbyists in smoky back rooms do not usually lead to awesome outcomes. This doesn’t mean that every conversation has to be publicly disclosed, but it does mean that part of the conversation has to be open to the public.
Having an informed public conversation about policy means that:
- Citizens get a better understanding of policy issues and trade-offs, and vote in a more informed way
- Politicians and policymakers face public checks and balances – if they come up with silly ideas, others will be there to point out their silliness
- New ideas can enter the public debate from a more diverse range of sources, meaning that policymakers don’t accidentally exclude a good idea.
A key part of an informed public conversation is having people who are passionate and knowledgeable about an issue who will discuss that issue in public, rather than behind closed doors. Sometimes these people are outsiders to the field who have gotten interested in it and educated themselves. For instance, Transportblog editors Matt and Patrick have never worked in transport or urban planning. Matt works for a financial services company, while Patrick runs his own photography business.
But often, the people who help foster the public conversation work in the field, in business, academia, or (more rarely) government. Jarrett Walker of HumanTransit fame is an excellent example of a professional who contributes to the public conversation about his profession. While working as a public transport planning consultant, he also writes a regular blog about the principles of network design. (Disclosure: I also work in the same field, and Jarrett partners with the company I work for for projects in Australia and New Zealand.)
It isn’t necessarily easy to speak or write publicly about the field you work in. While there are social benefits to fostering a more informed public conversation, there are personal and professional risks. This is especially true in New Zealand, due to the small size of the place. It’s definitely possible to do yourself out of a job by taking the ‘wrong’ position on a controversial issue – in most fields, there just aren’t that many people hiring.
That’s a risk that can be managed, if not fully mitigated. This doesn’t mean taking a ‘party line’ and publicly advocating for the positions of employers or clients. In a democratic society, everybody is entitled to hold and express personal views. But it does mean strictly maintaining client confidentiality, and, from time to time, staying silent on an issue that you’ve worked closely on, or discussing it in a general sense rather than delving into the details of a specific proposal.
But in spite of the risks, I’ve been enthusiastic about writing for Transportblog (unpaid!) because I see it as a useful contribution to a more informed public debate about major issues like transport policy, housing policy, and the overall shape of our built environment – which is to say, the shape of our society. It’s my small contribution to making representative democracy work better.
Transportblog undoubtedly has an editorial voice that is shaped in different ways by all of the regular authors, who volunteer their own time to run the blog, as well as by interactions with commenters. Like all humans, we have our own values and viewpoints, and we express them in what we write. But my hope is that we manage to ground ourselves in the evidence, and to build our posts around facts rather than unsubstantiated reckons.
Other people with different values or viewpoints may look at the same evidence and come to a different conclusion about what should be done. Hopefully the work done by Transportblog will make people more aware of the common evidence base underpinning the debate, and help identify some of the big issues facing Auckland and other cities in New Zealand.
Is this where the conversation ends? No – certainly not! With luck, it’s just the beginning. I’d like to see a broader and more diverse conversation about public policy in New Zealand – not just in transport and urban policy, but across the board. I’d like to see more people grappling with important issues in public, rather than just talking about the weather.
The thing is: It won’t happen by itself. Participating in a public conversation takes time and effort. You have to inform yourself of the issues, and learn to debate others in a respectful fashion. If you’re talking about an issue that you work on, it can leave you feeling exposed to professional risks.
So if we want a good, well-informed public conversation about policy, we need to make it easier, not harder, to speak in public. I’d encourage everyone to think carefully about how to foster the debate:
- Employers should ask whether their media policies (both social and conventional) enable employees to make public contributions. It’s certainly vital to maintain client confidentiality and avoid prejudicing your work. However, I would argue that many employers are too conservative and hence unintentionally stifle the debate.
- Universities and schools should encourage their staff to engage more with public policy issues. These organisations are (in principle at least) more removed from commercial and political imperatives. There are some great examples of publicly-engaged academics and teachers in NZ – Thomas Lumley (StatsChat), Michelle Dickinson (NanoGirl), and secondary school teacher and occasional NZ Herald columnist Peter Lyons come to mind – but they’re in the minority.
- Everyday New Zealanders should think about speaking up on issues you care about – and, equally importantly, informing yourself about those issues. But if you disagree with someone else’s view, don’t take that as a license to smear them or tear them down personally. Ad hominem attacks destroy quality conversations. Instead, try to understand how their values may differ from yours, and, if you think they’re simply wrong on the facts, engage with the evidence and debate the issue honestly.
And finally, Transportblog is always open to considering guest posts, so contact us if you’ve got ideas you’d like to share.