A blog on climate assemblies

A recent (August 2021) post on the Constitution Unit Blog is entitled The Momentum Behind Climate Assemblies. It is by Robert Liao, who was a research volunteer at the Constitution Unit until the end of July. It is slightly unfortunate that towards the start of the piece her used the phrase the so-called “deliberative wave”, without perhaps realising that this is a put-down, whereas his tone otherwise is generally positive.

A new book on deliberative democracy

The founder of the newDemocracy foundation, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, and the Research and Design Program Manager at that Foundation, Kyle Redman, have written a short book The A, B & C of Democracy (cats in the sack) which, in 90 pages of around A5 size, takes just a couple of hours to read. True, and I am not a fast reader. The book sets out the rationale behind, and the broad characteristics of, mini-publics to assist in producing wiser and better public policy. Especially valuable for politically tricky subjects. Ideal reading for our busy decision makers.

The book is published by Carlow Books, and can be obtained in paperback or e-book format from Blackinc Books.

UK’s first permanent citizens’ assembly

Under the headline “Can giving power to the people rebuild trust in politics?”, The Big Issue reports that the London Borough of Newham has established the first permanent citizens’ assembly. As one member of the assembly comments; “This is pro-active not reactive”. And another, the big hurdle; “Whether the citizens’ assembly is a waste of time or useful depends the Council”.

NZ’s Long-term insights briefings

The Public Service Commission is currently working on this new initiative, and are aware that there is considerable interest in some quarters in the use of representative deliberative processes.

A description of this requirement under the Public Service Act is available on the website of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Also, some further details of the public consultation on this topic can be found on the Public Service Commission’s website, together with the possibility of a quick survey or an email address for submissions. This is worth a read, and submissions are open until 20 Sep 2021.

Ideas for the 4th Nation Action Plan under the OGP

I have recently submitted an idea for the upcoming fourth Nation Action Plan under New Zealand’s participation in the Open Government Partnership. The submission process is available through the NZOGP website, by clicking on ‘Join the Conversation’ link, registering and then subsequently logging in. You need a degree of determination to make it, as usual. However, the submission read:

Q: What do you think would encourage more active citizenship and partnership in New Zealand?

It has been demonstrated many times in diverse parts of the world that being personally invited by authority, as a result of a civic lottery, to take part in an assembly, large or small, tasked with deliberating on a particular, usually tricky, issue, evokes an enthusiastic public response. Through receiving information, learning about an issue, seeking further information if needed and then developing a common response through facilitated deliberation in small groups citizens can be empowered and use that power for the benefit of society at large. Those who have been part of such assemblies commonly remain more engaged politically, more likely to raise their voice and more likely to vote. Those in power who commission such assemblies find that sound decisions and sound judgements are made in this way.

So, build on the success of Commitment 5 of the 3rd NAP, further adding to the policy toolbox and commissioning an assembly meeting all the criteria of the OECD for a representative deliberative process, tasked with considering one or other of the difficult topics of the day.

Q: Who should be involved?

Since an essential element of the kind of citizen engagement recommended here is that the process be commissioned by authority, that means that the process should be commissioned by a Minister, and preferably by a Minister in Cabinet. Which Minister would depend on the proposed topic and brief to the assembly. The procedures for commissioning, establishing and running an assembly are well documented internationally. The mechanics of recruitment should be contracted out to one or more independent bodies. On the side of participants, they should be chosen by a two stage stratified random process from the electoral rolls.

Q: How would that make a difference to you and others?

With plenty of publicity both around the process itself, letting the public see and know that we were trying out a new way of incorporating demographically representative and deliberative input from the public into policy, I would be thrilled. The general public, our civil servants, and elected representatives would, hopefully, be interested and learn that such processes are valuable and essentially democratic, including “people like us”.

Q: What have you heard friends and family members, or others, talking about when it comes to this topic?

Because I am interested in participatory democracy and frequently bend their ears my immediate family know possibly more about the topic than they would wish. There is a group of, mainly journalists, but also some organisations such as Trust Democracy advocating generally, and Aotearoa Climate Emergency and Extinction Rebellion calling for a citizens’ assembly specifically on climate change and ecological degradation. So essentially this would be an opportunity for Government to make the public at large aware of the possibilities of this form of engagement process.

Why the contribution is important

It would be highly advantageous to move beyond our current practice for public consultation by submission, which, for all its potential inclusivity, presents significant barriers to participation by the public at large due to the skills necessary and the intimidating nature of the process. There is a huge difference between calling for submissions in the normal way, where all the onus remains essentially on the submitter who, whether an individual or organisation, is isolated from other submitters, and actively inviting individuals to take part in a process where everything is done to ensure effective deliberation and participation, if chosen. New Zealand is one of the few liberal democracies that has not yet tried out such processes, has not joined the “deliberative wave”, to quote the title of the 2020 OECD report. Our decision-makers and officials perhaps see such processes as an infringement and diminution of their power. This is not an accurate picture. Sharing power is a demonstration of trust, and Government needs to trust the citizenry just as the citizens need to trust Government. Such processes as recommended here build two-way understanding and trust and tend to produce sound outcomes to tricky issues. At the very least, they show transparently and openly what groups of citizens, learning and working together, jointly think about the issues presented to them.

Draft bill to establish a Civil Assembly

Thoughts on how we might institutionalise a form of representative deliberative process by law. This is a document currently shared on Google docs. If you go back to the main page and use the contact form at the bottom I can invite you to join in the drafting of the Bill. 

It would be assumed that, by joining in, you think the idea at least worth discussing. The first two questions to be asked are:

  1. what should such a bill be called?
  2. is the idea of a three-part assembly worth considering, or what other composition should be considered?


Response from MPs

Perhaps I should not have been surprised that of 120 MPs just six have acknowledged receiving my letter of 26 August, and of these six only one could be considered to be a response which actually addresses the issue and shows awareness of what is at stake. Conclusion: most MPs are too busy or not interested in promoting deliberative participation by the public at large in the making policy. Maybe future contacts will help me change my mind.

Public participation in the Auckland Climate Action Framework

These comments are mainly from the angle of public engagement, both in the drafting of the Climate Action Framework, and what the framework proposes as the plan rolls on. My thoughts are that, without meaningful public engagement in both decision making and in the roll-out of any actions, failure of political will and of public support are highly likely.

  1. The draft CAF makes several mentions of the symposium which was held and the subsequent meeting or rangatahi during the drafting of the framework. There is no indication of how the participants in these two events were chosen, nor of what was said/decided at them. This total lack of transparency is unfortunately typical. The Council simply cherry picks, and gives no indication of what or why it has chosen.

  1. Key Move 1: any mention of the Council’s proposals for public engagement in the future comes under this Key Move. There are generalisations such as “working together” and “all Aucklanders have a voice” but no real proposals for upping the standard of the usual methods for soliciting “feedback”. Effective public input would need to demonstrate:

  • inclusiveness

  • a real degree of popular control to incentivise participation

  • facilitation of considered judgement instead of off the cuff isolated opinion

  • transparency of the process, both internal and external

  • reasonable efficiency (cost)

  1. On p.52, under Progress and Indicators, there is nothing measuring public engagement or participation. And on p.63 there seems to be no serious engagement with the public at large.

  2. It is notable that the Climate Independent Advisory Group contained nobody with expertise in public engagement.

  3. Full Action List: this list, on a series of un-numbered pages following p.70, make it clear that the Council only wants to engage with:

  • the Climate Leaders Coalition

  • rangatahi

  • mana whenua

  • community leaders

  • advisory panels

  1. In view of the fact that the Council clearly signals that it has no intention of meaningful engagement with the public at large, XR’s third demand, taking it that this is still the implementation of a Citizens’ Assembly with participants chosen by lot, remains important and deserves the kind of long term advocacy and lobbying which will be necessary. Now is a good time for this, with local elections coming up and the list of candidates coming out on 21 August.

Auckland’s Climate Action Framework

This document is now out, with submissions able to be made up to 8 pm on Friday 6 September.

The document can be looked at online, or downloaded as a pfd from https://www.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/have-your-say/topics-you-can-have-your-say-on/auckland-climate-action-framework/Pages/default.aspx?fbclid=IwAR2k9EUY-K1RQPTm3Q17WfwmAGzzcjLFLHwOXi7SsK7MkclBQe8-LghTMks

Copies should also be available at libraries and local board offices.