This is a guest post by Dr. Tatjana Buklijas. Tatjana is Associate Director at Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, and a Senior Lecturer in Global Studies at The University of Auckland.
This post is based on a Business Lab podcast featuring Tatjana and Dr. Jenny Wigley of Watercare talking about their research.
Over six weeks in June and July 2021, several thousand Watercare customers received invitations to participate in a workshop organized by Watercare and a University of Auckland team. The purpose of these workshops was to start a conversation about the future of Auckland’s water supply. Four Saturday workshops at two-week intervals in four different parts of the city – starting from the West Auckland, through Central Auckland and North Shore, and finishing in the South – were organized, to ease access to residents across the city, but also to investigate whether people living in different neighbourhoods had different views. Out of the several hundred who expressed interest in participating, for each workshop we recruited a group of 30 participants whose demographic composition mirrored, as closely as possible, the demographic makeup of our city. There were young parents who brought their children, retired aviation engineers, electricians from Mangere and students from North Shore. Most of them had never taken part in a public consultation. Most of them knew very little about water governance – in fact, while aware of the recent drought and restrictions, many had not understood water supply in our city as a problem in the long run.
And yet we expected them to spend three hours thinking about what water means to them and to the city, hearing from Watercare and university experts about potential technical solutions that must be built by around 2040 to secure sufficient water supply, and then discussing their preferences with the people they’d just met. Our expectations were high, but our participants exceeded them.
Participatory democracy vs. deliberative democracy
These workshops were part of a research project investigating how forms of citizen involvement in public decision-making coming out of the field called deliberative democracy could be used in Aotearoa New Zealand. They could, we think, replace at least partly the current forms that all come from the tradition of participatory democracy. Namely, both participatory and deliberative democracy seek to enhance and complement the contemporary representative democracy. Participatory processes, drawing on the legacy of the civil rights movement, allow citizens to have direct input in public policy decisions. In Aotearoa New Zealand participatory democracy is enshrined in law through the Resource Management Act 1991 and Local Government Act 2002. The boards of inquiry and the environment court; public consultations on strategic documents and plans, “town halls”, all the way to simple “have your say” surveys – all of these are now well entrenched in the ways in which the institutions operate.
Creating a representative participant group
Yet while participatory processes are widely used, they are also flawed. First, the people who tend to take part are usually privileged: they have money, time, education, and confidence. An excellent piece a few years ago showed how the demographic composition of submitters to the Auckland Plan 2050 plan did not match the demographic composition of the urban population: the “loudest voices” were older, wealthier, and whiter, than our city is today, let alone of the 2050 Tāmaki Makaurau. My own first serious experience of a participatory process, as submitter to the East West Link Board of Inquiry, showed me that even for a well-resourced academic, equipped with experience in public speaking and access to scientific publications and knowledgeable colleagues, standing in front of a panel of judges whilst presenting my submission felt daunting.
Second, participants tend to be those who have a stake in the issue; and often those who have – or think they have! – something to lose. The infamous Auckland Transport St Heliers town hall comes to mind.
The third aspect – that the participatory processes are designed for people, or groups, to present their or their group’s position; that they are not well set up for finding a common ground between those holding opposing views; and that they do not require participants to be well informed about the question under consideration – is less discussed. And yet, the issues that we are trying to solve today are getting more, not less, complex. Understanding the need for decarbonizing transport or climate action more generally entails technical knowledge, thinking far ahead into the future and holding a range of scenarios in mind. Action on climate in particular requires profound shifts in the way that we live today; trade-offs involved need to be crystal clear to everyone, and everyone must be on board. But what we have, instead, are brief encounters made even more polarized in the “information bubbles” of social media.
Citizens’ assemblies: finding shared ground
Internationally, a different type of citizen engagement processes is gaining traction, drawing on the body of knowledge known as deliberative democracy. Deliberative democratic processes come in a variety of shapes and sizes – from the tiny deliberative cells to large citizen assemblies – but they all share some key elements. First, the people involved are randomly selected from the target population – be it a neighbourhood, a city or a country – in a manner similar to jury selection. Second, they are given a clear remit by the commissioning body, and a commitment to take their recommendations into account when making decisions. Third, they’re well-resourced to engage with the question: they are given enough time, access to relevant knowledge and experts (often of their choice); they’re paid for the hours spent; food and adequate space is provided. And finally, then, they are expected to find a shared ground: perhaps not the solution they are the most passionate about, but something they can all “live with”.
Thinking beyond the political term
The reasons for the growing popularity of deliberative processes are, likely, many. Some scholars explain it as a response to the disillusionment with the current democratic formats. Politicians participating in three or four year-political cycles are not incentivized to think about long term, intergenerational problems. Experiments in direct democracy such as Brexit have resulted in such deep, unexpected and, likely, unfavourable results that – although referenda offer citizens a direct way to express their opinions – other solutions seem much more attractive. As indicated earlier, the complex, intergenerational nature of problems we are facing today – climate change in the first place but also the entrenched inequality – also seem to require new solutions. This is why several countries have recently called for “climate assemblies”, or deliberative processes involving groups of around 150 citizens who over multiple weekends learned, discussed, and then made recommendations on policy solutions to the climate crisis.
While the extent to which their proposals will be implemented differs case-by-case, what is clear is that the citizens assembled are capable of understanding the urgency of the climate crisis and proposing innovative and brave solutions. These good results confirm once again the scholarly arguments in favour of deliberative processes. It is not just that the diverse groups of people should be in the room because it is an equitable thing to do; it is also the case that a cognitively diverse group will come up with a better solution than a group of 55 year old economists. We too saw the “collective reason” in action in our workshop where we intentionally mixed people of diverse ethnic backgrounds, ages, professions, educational attainments. The breadth of lived experiences and knowledge was astounding, and they came together in insightful questions and comments.
Packaging big problems into local solutions
Large national assemblies, be it those on climate or the Irish citizens’ assembly that then led to the historical 2018 referendum that made abortion legal, are well known. Yet in my view the greatest potential lies in the uses of deliberative processes at local level. The British policy scholar Rebecca Willis convincingly argues that the big, intractable monster of climate change is best “packaged and parcelled” into something meaningful at local levels. We too observed that in our workshops. Changing rainfall patterns in our city, and resulting restrictions, presented an excellent opportunity to talk about the changing climate. With the Three Waters Reform centralizing the technical part of the water governance, it is a good moment to rethink the remaining local governance: should it all stay at the level of councils? Or should the workload, and power, be distributed among citizens, in deliberative processes?
The recently launched Local Government Review offers an opportunity to take these international experiences and literature into account, while also thinking about local pressures. One important aspect of our “deliberative democracy in Aotearoa” – one that we are thinking through – is how to make deliberative models aligned with the principles of Te Tiriti and tikanga; but here too the local level seems to provide a better place to start. Our workshops were not full deliberative processes as their objective, other than designing the process, was to gain an insight into what the citizens of Tamaki know and understand about the water supply. They were not asked to produce recommendations. What we could see, however, is that under right conditions encounters around complex issues need not be divisive, and can lead to productive solutions.
Tatjana is Associate Director in Koi Tū Centre for Informed Futures and Senior Lecturer in Global Studies at The University of Auckland. She is a medically trained science & technology studies scholar and historian of science, with a longstanding interest in the relationship between urban environments and knowledge production. Views expressed in this article are her own. Her current project is asking how deliberative democracy combined with local and indigenous knowledge and other academic approaches e.g. education can be used to address complex problems faced by our city and country. https://www.complexconversations.nz/