Talking to the Auckland Peoples’ Panel

Currently I am trying to get to talk to someone in the Shape Auckland / People’s Panel to discuss the possibility of the Council going for a citizens’ assembly. What I have sent them so far is:

1. General outline of the proposal

Auckland Council decides to organise a citizens’ assembly as an experiment in participatory democracy and as an expansion of its valued consultations with ratepayers. The assembly, which will number some 100 participants chosen by sortition from the electoral roll, will meet over a number of weekends from mid-May 2019 and will consider up to three issues which the public have chosen. The process of choosing which issues will be considered will be; public suggestions to a website that the Council has set up, followed by public voting on those suggestions. The Council will edit the suggestions only to avoid having duplicates or near duplicates, and to eliminate trivial, offensive or illegal ideas. Voting on the suggestions will be online, and each person wishing to vote will be issued an identity and password which can be used only once. This is to prevent multiple voting from skewing the results. The final three topics will be published.

The intention to hold a citizens’ assembly will be advertised both in Our Auckland and in the Herald, as well as local newspapers, and to the press generally. It will also be announced that participants in the assembly will be paid a per diem of $150 and their travel and other necessary expenses (which could include childcare) will be reimbursed.

  1. Invitation and selection of participants

In many ways the tricky bit of organising a citizens’ assembly, especially for the first time, is recruiting and selecting participants. First off, unlike jury service in the courts, there is no legal obligation to take part. So an important element is willingness to take part, and it is essential to make taking part sound and be attractive, and also to remove, where possible, any practical or cultural barriers to people being willing to take part. In this regard, valuable advice might be offered by some of the Advisory Panels, and also marae within the Council’s area.

Usually, the selection of participants is a three stage process. Firstly, a large number of personal invitations is sent out to randomly selected citizens. In New Zealand this probably means selecting registered voters from the electoral rolls. Selecting a set of names at random from each of Auckland’s electorates or wards is relatively straightforward. If the aim is to have around 100 final participants, then it will be necessary to send out around 10,000 invitations. This is because the response rate is usually quite low. The invitations need to be personal, that is addressed to an individual, to explain what is being asked (to be willing to go on a list from which the final 100 participants will be chosen, again by lot), what the assembly will be like (with links to further information and illustrations for those with internet access), and how often and for how long it will meet and how the per diem and expenses will be paid. It also needs to explain how the ratepayers themselves are selecting the topics to be considered.

It would probably be ideal for the invitations to be hand-delivered, so that issues of people having moved can be sorted out, and to allow for instant response to questions, given the unfamiliarity of the process. It might be possible for at least some of the delivery to be done by local volunteers, organised through the Local Boards, and those volunteers, or some of them, might later be trained to be table facilitators at the assembly itself.

The second stage in the selection process is the random selection of 100 or so names from the data base of those who have indicated their willingness to participate, assuming that there is a large enough data base for this to be a valid exercise. If there is not a large enough sample to conduct a second selection, then the next stage is to examine the list to check whether there are any obvious omissions or distortions compromising representativeness, and to seek to rectify any such identified by issuing extra invitations.

The aim is to have around 100 willing participants and some backup names as alternates should illness or other events cause participants to drop out.

  1. Organisation and procedures of the assembly itself

The basic procedural outline of assemblies which have been held elsewhere are:

  • An initial session to sort out practical matters, to divide the participants up (randomly) into say 12 tables of 8, each with a trained facilitator, and to remind participants that they are asked to think about the issues not principally as individuals but broadly as citizens of the wider Auckland community.

  • For the chosen topic there is then a learning phase, with presentations from stakeholder organisations and experts to set the scene.

  • Next the participants work to understand the issue, where necessary by directing questions to experts and officials, and also by receiving further submissions.

  • When they are ready, participants then set themselves to deliberating, each table on its own, with only the facilitator present. Their aim is to agree, so far as possible, on a set of policy proposals to address the issue.

  • Once each table has reached the end of its deliberations, a wider session takes place, with a representative from each table presenting their proposals and general discussion of a set of proposals which can be presented to Council, and widely published, as agreed by the assembly as a whole.

Where does the Governing Body stand in all of this? In commissioning the assembly it agrees to publicly and directly  respond to (though not necessarily to implement) each and every proposal put forward by the assembly.

Although the assembly is not open to the general public, its proceedings should be recorded, preferably by video, so that after the event the public can see how it operated. Commonly such video records also interview participants, after the event, to give their reaction to taking part. The experience of participating in a deliberative assembly is an important element of the democratic benefits anticipated, particularly if such assemblies become a regular feature so that the number of those who have participated grows over time.

These proposals will be added to as time allows. However, at present they are just put forward by one individual, and therefore from the Council’s point of view, easy to ignore. So if anyone feels like joining and supporting the general idea, particularly if you live in the Auckland Council area, you could use the form at the bottom of the home page.

4.   Wildly expensive?

Detailed costs can only be worked out during real planning if this became a real exercise, but experience elsewhere suggests that the cost of an assembly such as has been suggested here would be of the order of a few hundred thousand dollars. A relatively minor sum in the overall Auckland budget for a huge democratic advance.