Joanna Collinge and Susan Burns argue that we need fresh models of democratic decision making to tackle the complex intergenerational challenges we face today.

The Local Government New Zealand Conference kicks off this week, putting debates about local democracy and civic participation back into the spotlight. But while discussions about democratic processes are particularly important for this layer of government closest to our communities, they’re equally relevant for central government.

The traditional model of representative democracy is no longer adequate

The complex, intergenerational nature of many issues faced today presents contestable policy choices and tough trade-offs. There is no ready consensus on how to solve the housing crisis, adapt to climate change, or allocate resources in a tight fiscal environment, and choices need to be politically sustainable. This challenges the democratic model of elected representatives mandated to make decisions on behalf of communities.

We’re mindful of a powerful point made by Lyn Carson, an associate with the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance in Canberra:

“A mandate gained through the ballot box is no longer sufficient. It has to be built every day throughout a term of office.” (Interview with Joanna Collinge, 2016)

A lack of understanding about public policy decisions, reinforced at times by misinformation, is contributing to a decline in trust in our democratic institutions, and a decline in voter turn-out. In a survey by Victoria University, 44% of respondents had little or no trust in local government. Voter turn-out for local elections has also been sitting at around 42% for the last four elections, with turn-out across our city councils at 39%.

The problem is broader than local government though – in that same VUW survey, 55% of respondents said they had little or no trust in our MPs as well.

Sharing decision making with citizens increases trust and engagement

International evidence shows that trust in and engagement with our democratic institutions are strengthened when deliberation and decision making are shared with communities and citizens rather than resting with elected representatives alone. Government needs to be not just a decision maker but also an enabler of decision making.

Citizen-led decision making is usually described as taking one or both of two forms – “participatory” and “deliberative”. Both provide meaningful opportunities for citizens to be directly involved in policy decisions.

Mechanisms for participatory democracy capture the voices and opinions of large numbers of citizens. Increasingly powered by technology, they’re designed to involve all citizens who are willing and able to engage, with participants self-selecting. Examples include town hall meetings, consultation on councils’ long-term plans, participatory budgeting, and Decentralised Autonomous Citizen Participation Organisations (a subspecies of the broader DAO phenomenon).

Deliberative democracy on the other hand usually involves smaller groups of people who have been invited to participate. The group has a diverse membership that reflects the relevant population, and it’s randomly selected to remove the bias and inequity that can come from self-selection. The group is facilitated to deliberate on a specific question, and is supported with the information it needs.

With deliberative democracy, the goal is for the group to reach consensus and make a collective recommendation. Usually, the relevant elected body has agreed in advance to either accept the recommendation, or to publicly communicate why not. “Citizens’ assemblies” and “citizen juries” are prime examples of deliberative democracy.

Both approaches both have their place – and their disadvantages

Participatory mechanisms are easier to organise, and they involve more people. But they also risk capturing only the loudest voices, which means the opinions included may not reflect the relevant population, and may not be well-informed or fully considered.

Deliberative mechanisms on the other hand facilitate the debate needed to achieve consensus on complex and contestable issues in a diverse representative group. But they require more organisation and they engage fewer people.

The approaches are not mutually exclusive and can be used together – for example with participatory mechanisms informing a deliberative process.

However, from research we’ve done at MartinJenkins to support clients in Aotearoa, it seems governments across the world are increasingly finding that deliberative processes are particularly effective, both for increasing trust in democratic institutions and for providing elected representatives with a mandate to tackle complex challenges. In the Netherlands for example, citizens’ assemblies have given politicians a mandate to be bold on climate adaptation.

Evidence also affirms that the quality of decision making is not compromised. Here’s Lyn Carson again:

“A well-facilitated group of citizens can make informed decisions just as well as a group of experts and build a strong sense of trust.” (Interview with Joanna Collinge, 2016)

We need to be doing more to harness these opportunities in Aotearoa

The rest of the world is harnessing and benefiting from these approaches. But what’s happening here in Aotearoa?

Last month the Panel for the Review into the Future for Local Government released their final report, which included discussion of how we can improve local democracy. The Panel said that for local government to fulfil its democratic purpose and potential, it needs to enable broad citizen participation through a range of democratic tools – including participative and deliberative democracy – and to move away from relying solely on elected members to provide a democratic voice.

The Panel also confirmed what many of us expected – that Aotearoa is lagging behind the rest of the world in these approaches. True, we have seen pockets of innovation, like the Koi Tū and Watercare Citizens Assembly, and we also note Wellington City Council’s recently announced Citizens’ Assembly on the Long Term Plan. But this falls far short of the ambition shown by Melbourne, for example, with its goal of being a world-leading “deliberative city”.

The Future for Local Government report went on to recommend that:

“Local government and councils develop and invest in democratic innovations, including participatory and deliberative democracy processes.”

In our view, this recommendation could be applied equally to central government – for example as part of major reform programmes.

How can we successfully embed deliberative democracy in Aotearoa?

We have noted that deliberative democracy approaches are more powerful, but also harder to implement. There will need to be a learning curve for government, both central and local, on how to effectively implement deliberative democracy practices in Aotearoa New Zealand, including in a way that incorporates te ao Māori.

As part of this, the Future for Local Government Panel recommended establishing a “Centre of Excellence” model for participatory and deliberative democracy in local government. We suggest this could be expanded to include central government.

But what are some of the key themes that a Centre of Excellence would need to focus on to truly drive this shift in Aotearoa? We believe there are valuable lessons to be learned not only from international experience but also from closer to home.

We need to embrace powerful examples and traditions of collective decision making from Aotearoa

We should first recognise that collective decision making and deliberative processes are already familiar territory for some of our communities, especially among Māori and Pacific peoples. As the Future for Local Government Panel noted, there is a lot to learn from existing practices such as wānanga and talanoa, as ways to reach consensus on decisions that have intergenerational impact.

Both local and central government also need to consider how to honour and give effect to their roles as Tiriti partners using deliberative democracy tools. Exactly what this looks like will need to be worked through as government begins to use these tools systematically, but it could certainly include Tiriti partners jointly deciding which questions or policies to use deliberative mechanisms for.

International experience points to several key success factors for deliberative processes

Looking overseas, our research into what has worked successfully points to the following three factors as being important for deliberative democracy:

  • Capture a broad range of perspectives – Deliberative democratic tools seek a representative sample of the population, with participants randomly selected. To support this, it’s critical that the process is designed to remove barriers to participation – for example, by compensating the group appropriately for their time and effort, and considering matters such as the timing and location of meetings, language, childcare, and transport.
  • Involve a skilled independent facilitator – A strong facilitator is essential to help the group work its way through complex issues and information, through a process that navigates trade-offs and leads to consensus.
  • Make sure the group’s work has a visible impact on decision making – Participants need to see value in the process and know their recommendations will at minimum be considered carefully, and ideally be accepted, so that participants feel the time and effort they put in has been worth it. As the review Panel noted, for citizen-led decision making to have weight, there needs to be transparency right from the start about how the final decisions will be made.

From discussion to action

As this year’s Local Government New Zealand Conference gets under way, we will be watching eagerly as discussions of democracy come to the forefront. Afterwards, however, the key question will remain: will we finally see some action?


Susan Burns is a Managing Principal / Pou Mātāmua at MartinJenkins, and has in-depth knowledge and experience in policy areas relating to local government. She was part of the Secretariat that supported the Review into the Future for Local Government.

Joanna Collinge is MartinJenkins’ Consultant Management Lead / Upoko Mātanga Whiriwhiri. She has supported clients in local and central government to explore good practice in citizen-led decision making. She draws on her experience leading national and international organisations, often navigating a way forward when different stakeholder groups have conflicting interests.


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