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.

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26 comments

  1. Strangely enough I am to give a guest lecture at AUT this morning on the state of media and social media reporting through the election just gone as well as the relationship between Central Government and the Council.

    In any case:
    For the Over-40 subset they voted for two primary reasons:
    They did not want Goff as Mayor as they did not like the direction they believe he would lead the Council in (Len 2.0). However, they might have given their vote to Penny Hulse if she ran (think about that one as I know others were certainly in the same camp including myself).
    Auckland Transport has annoyed them over a bus route project down their road to which (and again) Auckland Transport think they know best and listen to none one else. So they are looking for elected representatives that can pull Auckland Transport back in and make AT more responsive to community concerns.

    For the 18-24 subset they did not vote for two primary reasons:
    In their eyes the City is “adequate” enough and is moving in the right direction in terms of improvements with transit and urban development (Sylvia Park and Manukau expansions). Nothing has overtly provoked “outrage” enough like the Auckland Transport example above to prompt what is in effect protest voting.
    Apart from Chloe none of the candidates really stood out at any level in representing them however, the next three years will be watched with interest given their line of work coming up (construction industry especially residential).
    The 18-24 subset is politically aware of happenings in Auckland Council and is an active user of transit and the libraries. However, their case would demonstrate a more fatal flaw with Council and Local Government in New Zealand.
    Source: https://voakl.net/2016/10/11/why-did-i-not-vote-not-me-people-i-know-in-voteakl/ (my own blog)

    I chucked those two questions to some community pages in the South and it prompted a good robust debate on our democratic structure – good and flaws. The ultimate point being that it is just more than a vote every three years – there is participation all the way through as Peter has said.

      1. I too am officially old and voted Goff, would I have voted Penny Hulse over Goff? certainly would have thought about it, but probably still would have voted Goff, a vote for the right of centre would just have been wasted

        but we also had the luxury of voting Darby and Hills on the Shore, I certainly hope that Richard Hills maintains his lead in the final tally

  2. It always seems sad that those best qualified to lead intelligent public debates on key topics are also those banned from doing so. That stifles democracy.

  3. Thanks Peter – fully agree. I have a pretty supportive company in regards to my own advocacy work for Bike Auckland – but even so, there have been times when I wondered: Did that just cost me the chance at getting work? Does being outspoken – including when already employed – cost me the chance of repeat work? I have also had clients once or twice express concern at me speaking up freely on social media, and I have passed on the possibility of being an expert witness for SkyPath, as it would allow opponents to too easily attack me as biased (instead, my boss took that role, seeing that he was never engaged in bike advocacy and thus was more neutral). Its not an easy thing to juggle, even if your work is okay with it. But for me its been more than worth it, and for society it is definitely worth it.

    1. Nice analysis Peter, that’s why we do it.

      There is one additional way, however, that public involvement in civil society can cost you personally, especially if you get any kind of profile for it, and that’s the spread of the erroneous idea that you’ve ‘retired’ from your day job and are no longer available for your work. On one level I think this is simply that some tend to want to put people into one box, so if you build a new identity that must mean it erases your previous one. And indeed in my case, I guess it’s partially true; I have put my art photography career on hold as I got more and more involved in this blog and the resultant advocacy, but not my photography business. I still love that, and it is my household’s primary source of income.

      I have had to explain quite firmly to even existing clients that I am still very much the nation’s leading photographer of the built environment (shameless!).

      And on that note I have another big residential architecture book coming out on November 1st, which should not to be uninteresting to many readers: City House County House. Enjoy.

    2. I sympathise with your position, Max. I sometimes wonder which of many technical/advocacy hats I’m wearing at a given time. It was interesting too going from my former university position (with that “independent academic freedom” mandate) to now back in consulting land. Fortunately my employers also appreciate and support my media contributions, and I don’t *think* these have upset the Clients (yet)…

      Great post too, Peter! TransportBlog has always been a great go-to source for lots of independent and well-reasoned thinking on important topics.

    3. Glad you’re putting your head above the parapets Max – I always enjoy your posts on BikeAKL. Same goes for Glen – I’ve learned a lot about Christchurch (and cycle networks) from your blog.

    4. In any medium we are all taking chances in our viewpoints. It’s called courage of conviction. (And before anyone says where are my facts, just take a look at the PR post that precedes). Livelihoods can be negatively affected either side of the fence and in the case of Skypath, you were probably wise to bow out as expert opponents have been crucified on this particular forum, so I guess it works both ways. Last night on National Radio “Evenings” we get advocacy from as far as I can tell, an employed field expert, something that is much easier to carry out:

      http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/nights/audio/201819579/bikes-on-the-footpath

  4. Good points, Peter.

    Shaun Hendy discusses this in depth in the context of science in his short book http://bwb.co.nz/books/silencing-science but the lessons there apply to all academics and many experts. Academics are a special case in that we actually have a legislated role to be the critic and conscience of society.

    In many ways transport blog puts academics to shame in the way you have really created an amazing public conversation around pressing issues in Auckland. I really do admire your work here.

    1. Yes the role of academia in postwar urban debates is really interesting in AKL’s case. Every city that fought off the blight and severance of urban motorways being forced through existing neighbourhoods in this period had a strong opposition almost always led by academics. This is true of the best example, Vancouver, and all the Australian cities.

      This is to be expected, they have an income not connected to the private sector industries that would profit from these megaprojects, and used to be at least, independent of Council and particularly government pressure for their employment. So independent, and, one would hope, informed, articulate, and public spirited.

      Every city needs public intellectuals, and surely its universities are the likely ecosystem that should produce and nurture these?

      AKL Uni however, in particular geography professor Cumberland, led the pro motorway and sprawl charge. Famously producing highly misleading data on density to discredit rail plans.

      And now we have a (retired?) AKL Uni law professor at the heart of 2040 running their crazy UP blocking legal action.

      My alma mater disappoints me.

        1. The Australian cities were largely saved from urban freeways on the (pro-rata) scale of Auckland’s by a citizen revolt listened to by Gough Whitlam, the, famously deposed PM. Yes they have urban freeways, and are now still trying to add massive news ones, that won’t work and the cannot possibly justify their cost, as they involve a great deal of tunnelling, but then Australia likes to prove it is a rich country with massive wasteful projects such as WestConnex.

          From this period, the 1970s, the most famous quote on the ‘freeway revolt’, as it was known at the time, comes from Bill Davis, the Premier of Ontario, when he killed Toronto’s proposed Spadina expressway with this:

          “If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile then the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve the people then the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop”

          Sadly such vision was no where near the levers of power in Auckland at the time [Robbie didn’t have Davis’s power], on account of our Soviet style centrally planned transport system and weak local government; all those ernest bureaucrats catching the train to their Lampton Quay offices and planning a car-only transport system for Auckland, 9-4 with lots of breaks for tea and biscuits…..

    2. Good reference David – and thanks for the kind words.

      I probably should have mentioned Shaun in the post. I’ve read some of the things he’s written and they are generally excellent. It’s distressing to see some of the same issues cropping up in the sciences – you’d like to think that would be less politicised, and more amenable to a fact-based public conversation. But perhaps that’s too much to hope for in an age of oil-funded climate denialism.

  5. Media Studies teacher here! This blog is a great example of what the internet can offer – a place for detailed inquiry and intelligent analysis free from profit-making imperatives (though I’m sure you’d love to be able to do it as a full time job!). Society would benefit from encouraging people to be active in this space. Businesses…not so much – at least not immediately. If you could convince companies that allowing their employees to participate in public discussion is beneficial, then I think you’d see more of it.

    1. Thanks Konrad!

      In my experience, employers are more sensitive to the perceived risks of letting their employees speak publicly than they are to the potential benefits. The risks are real, but I do think that many organisations are unnecessarily conservative, holding back the debate for no benefit.

      I say “employers” because it’s not just businesses – government agencies are even more risk-averse.

  6. Best NZ based blog on the web and I don’t even live in Auckland anymore (87-90). I very much appreciate all the work the authors do and the excellent debate that comes from it. Keep up the good work!

  7. I think what Ben Franklin actually said was “A republic for white men, if we can keep it.”. Although it was a radical move it was still a constitution that allowed slavery and even allowed states to count slaves (factored down to 60%) as part of the population used to determine representatives. They also specifically set up a senate to ensure the interests of major landowners and rich merchants were protected. It still does a fine job of that.

    1. The 3/5th rule was put in by Free States, otherwise Southern States would have even higher representation in the House. That isn’t what the Senate was set up for, remember it wasn’t until the Jacksonian Era that property requirements were removed from most states & not until 1856 that Property Requirements had been removed from every state so to say in an era of Property Voting for the House that the Senate was set up to benefit that same class not sure makes sense.
      The Senate was set up due to the historical nature of the Union, the Constitution itself was controversial during founding as previously states had huge autonomy under the previous system the Articles of Confederation. The Senate is the States house, while the House of Reps is the people’s house. The Senate’s design was so States had say over Federal policy, the Senate doesn’t really serve this purpose though since the 17th amendment as Senators are elected by the voters.

      1. “In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, the people ought to have permanency and stability.” James Madison 1787.
        The senate was set up specifically to represent the interests of ‘the minority of the opulent’ The idea that the Senate was the States house came about as part of the Connecticut compromise to try and settle the argument as to who should vote for them. The first idea was a wealth test, that was discarded as too difficult so the next position was let state houses choose. That was seen as a way of ensuring rich people had control. The rest is justification and spin.

    2. No, that’s the actual quote. FYI, Ben Franklin was in favour of abolishing slavery and incorporating free blacks into society.

      More generally, I’d observe that the American Constitution, while flawed in a number of important ways, has also been updated and amended throughout its lifespan. The outcome has generally been to widen the circle of democratic participation. In this context, it’s a bit odd to point to the words of the framers as proof that the idea was flawed – after all, people have spent the last 200 years making institutional reforms to improve the republic!

      1. I was just being a smart mouth about Franklin. The constitution was radical and forward thinking for its time. But through our lens outdated. The whole slavery thing gets a bit overlooked. I think slavery was still allowed in every area except Vermont although many states had stopped the importation of slaves. But the real issue that gets polished is that the framers saw themselves as the gentlemen class. They didn’t question the need for a Senate, they saw it as their version of the House of Lords. While they didn’t take titles they considered themselves the elite and wanted controls on democracy like a state appointed senate and an electoral college so that men like themselves could keep control.
        Yes they have modified the Constitution, the Bill of Rights is landmark stuff, but dont get too enthusiastic. When push comes to shove anything goes- the Judiciary branch has allowed Japanese Americans to be imprisoned, Dred Scott and McCarthyism all as being constitutional.
        It seems to me the main impact of a constitution is to replace the tyranny of a current potentate with the permanent tyranny of dead men’s values. (A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed)

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