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.