Complex conversations: A deliberative democratic model for New Zealand

by Dr Tatjana Buklijas
Overview of Auckland city at night, taken from to top of a mountain.

As both COVID-19 and climate change have shown us, inadequate policy response in various countries is often caused not by the lack of evidence but by insufficient political will and public support.

In some cases, the lack of political will comes from mistrust in science and experts. Yet as research investigating slow uptake of climate policies in the UK shows, politicians and policymakers may accept the evidence and the need to act, yet fear their constituents have no time, understanding or interest for problems that appear remote to their busy lives. The key question today for policymakers and politicians at all government levels is how to gain public support for policies that initially may be difficult and counterintuitive – and possibly costly at elections – yet beneficial in the long term.

Our interest in the political support for hard policy choices based on good evidence came from our work in the previous Office of the Chief Science Advisor under Distinguished Professor Sir Peter Gluckman. Working on broad and complex topics such as agricultural greenhouse gases, health impacts of methamphetamine contamination and resilience in adolescence, we have come to appreciate the intricate dance between evidence, political decision-making and public opinion. As we transitioned from a government-facing office into Koi Tū – an academic research centre and nonpartisan think tank at the University of Auckland – one of the foremost research questions we wanted to address was public participation in complex policy decisions.

Specifically, we want to understand how direct engagement between citizens, policymakers and politicians can build trust and move policy forward. There are many processes and institutions that have attempted to do just this. Methods of participatory democracy include: “town hall” meetings, online surveys, public consultations and submissions to local and national government bodies, public organisations, boards of inquiries and select committees. This broad and direct engagement with ordinary citizens should offer opportunities for politicians and policymakers to explain the rationale behind potential policy directions, and for citizens to ask questions, voice their dissent or express their support. In theory, iterations of such engagements should lead to consensus on the policy response that is informed by research evidence as well as by local knowledge and has broad public support.

Yet such participatory processes are hindered by many problems. First, they inevitably attract highly interested people with strong opinions on either end of the spectrum. To some, these are ‘engaged citizens’, while others might call them ‘activists.’ Either way, their self-selection into political engagement processes can give an inaccurate reading of broader public opinions. At the same time, people who are not aware of the problem and/or have no resources do not take part, even if policies discussed have direct impact on their lives. These necessary resources include time (and/or money needed to free up the time), knowledge and also confidence to participate in engagements that may be intimidating.

A recent piece analysing submissions on the Auckland 2050 plan has shown the huge demographic and asymmetric discrepancy, with submitters that are older, more often white and more likely to live in northern parts of the city, compared to the Auckland population as a whole. Even when ‘ordinary’, non-activist citizens, somehow, do find themselves taking part, their participation may be hampered by the lack of knowledge, insufficient time to make a considered judgment or feeling of unease as they find themselves in a room of people who look and sound different from them.

For this reason, we decided to explore deliberative democracy. Although often confused with its participatory counterpart, deliberative democracy is different in many important ways. Crucially, where participatory processes rely on the breadth of participation by hoping to hear from as many people as possible (even if that group is demographically and discursively homogenous), deliberative democracy rests on a) good demographic representation of the entire affected population, even if the engaged group is not large, and b) quality of deliberation. The latter is ensured through sufficient time, access to information and experts, and reimbursement of costs. As a field of empirical democratic research and practice, deliberative democracy is relatively new, going back only a few decades to experiments with random polls in the United States or consensus conferences in Denmark. Yet, the practice itself is very old, with many cultures internationally having traditions of deliberation and consensus-making to resolve conflict and decide on important issues. Importantly for Aotearoa New Zealand, deliberation, consensus and collective decisions are all elements of collective Wānanga meetings, which in the past have been used in participatory approaches though, generally, in Māori-specific panels and groups.

Deliberative democracy has in recent years gained considerable international prominence, for example, through the work of the Irish citizens’ assembly. International attempts to tackle the problem of climate policy response through deliberative democratic engagement have been followed by calls for an Aotearoa New Zealand climate assembly. Alongside enthusiastic support, there have been critical voices warning that these (Western) models of engagement cannot be imported unchanged into Aotearoa New Zealand. Instead we must seriously consider what an appropriate approach would look like for Aotearoa-New Zealand: a model that would combine the best elements of internationally tested deliberative democracy with Tiriti o Waitangi obligations and a commitment to biculturalism, while also sensitive to the growing multiculturalism. That may mean, for example, recruiting a group of citizens that represents demographically the relevant population (of a neighbourhood, town, city, or whole country) while making sure that the question asked of the group is framed using te ao Māori values and Māori knowledge-holders strongly represented among experts.

Our project, funded by the MBIE Smart Ideas Endeavour fund, and conducted by the team that brings together experience and skills in policy, science studies, Kaupapa Māori and education, is currently in the first phase of research. We are engaging with communities across Auckland, as well as professionals in local government and public organisations, to understand their views and experiences regarding participatory processes. Their input should help us shape the ‘complex conversations’ approach that we intend to test on a locally significant issue next year. While the outcome of the deliberative process is expected to inform policy decisions on the issue, we do not see it as the end of the process but rather the first step in the development of a New Zealand-suited approach: a beginning of deliberation on deliberation.

Tatjana Buklijas is a medically-trained historian and philosopher of science at Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, University of Auckland.

For more details, please see Complex Conversations or email 

Our themes