Citizens’ assemblies give hope for reinvigorating democracy

An experiment in deliberative democracy on the future of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland’s water supply gives hope for reinvigorating democracy and complex decision making.

Last year, Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures and Watercare partnered on a novel approach to involve Aucklanders in a decision-making process that could become a model throughout the country.

The organisations set up a citizens’ assembly to learn first-hand from Auckland residents about their preferences for meeting the city’s future water needs. The water-supply is under pressure from a growing population, changing rainfall patterns due to climate change and a long-term need to reduce the water take from the Waikato River.

The process and lessons learnt, and how deliberative democracy was localised for an Aotearoa New Zealand context, are covered in a new Koi Tū case study report, Citizens’ assembly on the next source of water for Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland.

Dr Anne Bardsley, Koi Tū Deputy Director, says the assembly was part of Koi Tū’s Complex Conversations research programme, designed to promote informed public decision-making and help citizens find agreement on complex issues.

“There is real potential for tackling long-term difficult to discuss issues through these sorts of facilitated public processes,” she says.

After four weekends of deliberation, the assembly recommended direct recycled water as the next source of water for Auckland, recognising that engaging the Auckland public in education on the safety and quality of the water would be necessary to facilitate acceptance.

The Watercare citizens’ assembly fits with a worldwide trend towards deliberative democratic processes, says Dr Tatjana Buklijas, Koi Tū’s Associate Director Academic, who was the lead for the MBIE-funded project.

Dr Buklijas is presenting about the report and the process at the New Zealand symposium IAP2 (International Association for Public Participation) today in Wellington.

“The Watercare example is a proof of concept,” says Dr Buklijas. “It shows us that deliberative democracy does have potential to reinvigorate democracy in New Zealand.”

However, she says more work is needed to understand how internationally developed theories and practices of deliberative processes can be adapted to Aotearoa New Zealand.

Koi Tū has been grappling with the question since 2019, when it was awarded an MBIE Endeavour Smart Ideas Grant to test a locally adapted deliberative democratic model.

“Deliberative” is the key word. It describes the process of finding participants representative of the community of interest, lining up an array of experts to lay out the relevant facts and arguments on the matter at hand and setting and ensuring adherence to the ground rules.

Te Tiriti o Waitangi brings a special character to deliberative processes in New Zealand with tikanga and mātauranga central considerations.

Dr Buklijas says recommending innovative ideas that could be a hard sell for the public demonstrates how citizens’ assemblies can advocate actions that politicians might shy away from.

“Deliberative democracy processes could help politicians in the sense of ‘sharing the load’ of responsibility for solutions that may seem radical.

“It is also true that citizens could come up with completely unexpected recommendations — and these could be something that politicians do not like and did not expect.

“However, international research has shown that deliberating groups of diverse citizens are likely to arrive at more considered and appropriate conclusions than many of the most knowledgeable individual experts or more uniform groups from the same profession, research discipline, or shared background.”

Dr Buklijas says the benefits of one-off deliberative democratic processes are usually seen in terms of providing good policy recommendations, raising trust in society and government and encouraging politicians to be bolder.

“We hope to encourage and support more of these processes in the near future.”

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