Local Government Magazine
Elizabeth Hughes

What kind of democracy?

Representative / participatory? Featured Image

When it comes to local government, do people think they have a representative or a participatory democracy? Elizabeth Hughes explains why this matters.

It’s been 14 years since local government changed from a representative to a participatory democratic model.

With all this engagement, consultation, and participation going on, you would think citizens would feel more engaged, more part of the decision-making processes, more enlightened and more satisfied with their council’s performance. But this doesn’t seem to be the case.

Perhaps we need to go back to 2002 when the change was first enacted. Participatory democracy means participation by citizens in political decisions and policies that affect their lives – especially directly rather than through elected representatives. (Noting that iwi ‘governance’ has always been a participatory democracy.)

This transformative change – which was about empowering individuals and communities to participate in decision-making processes – happened and, quick as a flash, went largely unnoticed.

I don’t mean unnoticed by local government itself. I mean unnoticed by the 95 percent of the population who don’t actually spend their time thinking about local government.

There were no social marketing campaigns, television debates, civic education, talkback champions or celebrations. It just happened. The machinery of local government got on and did its best to deliver this new-fangled participatory democracy.

Councils invested enormously in: “we are listening”, “we need your feedback” and “tell us what you think” models. Accountability and transparency became the new buzzwords. Extensive best practice systems were developed, training undertaken and all the legislative boxes were ticked so councils could always say “the community had every opportunity to have their say”. Then, with the advent of social media (which is even newer than the legislative change), another significant tool for enabling participation evolved.

So why the general grumpiness and unhappiness with local government? Why have citizens not trusted, used and embraced the very good systems and processes available to them? Perhaps this is the result of two conflicting ideologies operating at once.

If you consider the demographics of the average local government voter, many come from a time when local government was representative not participatory. So it’s not unexpected that this large bloc still votes for people they expect to ‘represent’ them – not surprisingly given they were never genuinely informed that modern local government now operates under a different model of governance.

In other words, they are voting for representatives. They don’t necessarily expect, nor want, these representatives listening to a wide range of alternative views before coming to a decision. They just want decisions as per the slogan they voted for.

However, because councils now legally and demonstrably operate in a participatory democracy, and have in place the very good systems and processes described above, this has significantly (and rightly) raised citizen expectations about the amount of say they should have, as well as the impact of that say.

Access to social media in particular has given many more people the chance to contribute to the debate. The capture, management and response to these random, myriad and sometimes ratbag contributions can be quite challenging for both elected members and staff.

Does any of this matter? Maybe not. But if local government is to correctly respond to the needs and wants of its communities, greater participation by all citizens (not just through voting every three years) should be at the core of what all councils strive to do. And, just maybe, the public needs to believe their council is authentic in what it is seeking to hear and understand.

And since it’s highly unlikely that after all this time there will ever be a public awareness campaign on participatory democracy, public education has to come from councils themselves. That is, the elected members and staff – which might involve something more fundamental than those very good systems and processes.

Or perhaps citizens – and councils – would just prefer representative democracy.

This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

Elizabeth Hughes runs her own consultancy Elizabeth Hughes Communication.

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