Councils can work far more closely with their communities. Best of all, they don’t have to wait for an over-arching localism project to take effect. John Pennington looks at the how for now.
When Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) and the New Zealand Initiative recently launched a discussion document on localism they were looking at how to devolve power and decision-making. According to LGNZ president Dave Cull, the success of the project will depend on strengthening self-governance at the local level: putting people back in charge of politics and reinvigorating our democracy.
While councils regularly engage with their communities, much activity currently happens at the lower end of the spectrum. It consists of informing and consulting, rather than involving, collaborating with or empowering citizens.
The ‘inform and consult’ approach is often appropriate for straightforward problems and issues. But many of the important challenges we are facing – such as the debate around climate change – are complex and multi-faceted.
Arriving at good decisions on complex problems requires citizen involvement. Citizens often have local knowledge that no official has. Local authorities need to provide opportunities and spaces for people to come together and deliberate on the hard choices that need to be made.
Getting consensus on how to proceed is often difficult owing to lack of agreement on the definition of the problem, and to multiple values and perspectives. Yet without rigorous public deliberation to help achieve clear solutions and make the necessary trade-offs, decision-making will be sub-optimal.
Local authorities already interact with their communities via the voting processes enshrined in representative democracy. Several, including Whanganui District Council, have also been using referenda – an aspect of participatory democracy – to guide decision-making.
While referenda highlight the necessary role of citizens in the decision-making process, they do not necessarily encourage people to deliberate carefully about an issue. Nor can they best handle complex issues.
In a deliberative democracy – a variant of participatory democracy – citizens invest time to deliberate on, and authentically weigh, all arguments before voting or deciding on the laws which will govern them.
As councils shift towards working more closely with their communities, deliberative methods will become more necessary and useful. Here are several examples (amongst many) of different methods.
In many countries, citizen’s juries have become one of the most popular forms of public deliberation. They are increasingly recognised for their capacity to deliver outcomes that are trusted by the broader community. (See the box story A citizens’ jury in action.)
Internationally, groups of people have been brought together to deliberate on everything from nuclear waste disposal, wastewater treatment and gender equality in healthcare, to youth employment, retail precinct upgrades, water pricing and housing.
In a jury process, a random sample of the community is actively recruited to participate. Simple demographic filters (such as age, gender or location) are used to help stratify this sample to represent broader demographics.
Jury members are given an overview of the deliberative process and brought up to speed on the case for consideration. Approaches that will help address the issue are identified and the deliberative forum process takes place. This may involve jury members listening to invited speakers and building their own knowledge of the topic.
Decisions are typically based on a majority vote.
A citizens’ assembly is a body of citizens usually commissioned by central government to deliberate on an issue, or issues, of national importance. Members are randomly selected. The purpose is to employ a cross-section of the public to study the options available to the state on certain questions and to propose answers.
In many cases, the state will require these proposals to
be accepted by the public through a referendum before becoming law.
Citizens’ assemblies have been used in Canada (British Colombia and Ontario), Ireland and England to deliberate on topics as diverse as electoral reform, constitutional reform, media ownership, the financial sector, MP selections, climate change and abortion.
Participatory budgeting is a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making, in which ordinary people decide how to allocate part of a public budget.
It enables citizens to identify, discuss and prioritise public spending projects, and gives them the power to make real decisions about how money is spent. It is used in many cities and countries including New York, Porto Alegre (Brazil), Boston, Paris, and in cities in both the UK and Iceland.
Several web-based tools such as Pol.is, collective-insights.com and Loomio, provide platforms that allow for greater deliberation than chat rooms and blogs.
Irrespective of any formal longer-term adoption, or otherwise, of localism, it is not clear why local authorities are not already making better use of public engagement processes.
Our experience at Public Engagement Projects (PEP), suggests that some staff and elected members are reluctant to risk trying new ways of bringing greater democracy to their communities. That is not good enough for the health of democracy or how we can best collaborate in meeting current and future challenges.
• John Pennington is a partner at Public Engagement Projects (PEP). www.pep.org.nz firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.