Yes, we have elections every three years that are intended to give voters the chance to make changes to government. But surely this shouldn’t be the only opportunity citizens have to influence the regulations imposed on them or the services government agencies provide for them.
Yes, affordability is important. Governments should not overtax their citizens and should strive to live within their “fiscal envelope”. Cuts in services may be necessary as priorities change. Most people understand that. Surely this should be a reason for governments and their agencies to go to their communities for advice and assistance?
Defining a problem is always a useful and informative place to start community engagement. Government agencies rarely do this. They are more likely to present options for “discussion”. I believe that that is too late to start engaging meaningfully.
Communities are full of smart people, many of whom are happy to freely provide advice and assistance, if they’re asked nicely and involved respectfully. Everybody lives in a community, including the bosses of government agencies and their Ministers, yet they seem to forget about that reality and prefer to go for a policy of announcing and defending, rather than debating and deciding.
Communities are full of sophisticated, resourceful and enterprising people who expect to be able to have their say. They don’t like being bullied or surprised. Online social media shows the extent to which people are prepared to discuss important issues with each other. Government agencies should recognise that they don’t hold the patent on Good Ideas or The Truth. Nobody will think any less of them for being honest. Indeed they may be respected more for that.
The recently announced cost cutting at the Department of Conservation is an example of an opportunity missed for meaningful community engagement.
There are few government agencies more connected to New Zealanders than is DOC. That connection runs at many levels, from active partnerships with outdoor recreation and environmentally focused groups, through to people who just feel all warm and fuzzy about New Zealand’s natural places.
DOC could have initiated a conversation with its stakeholders along the lines of: “We’ve got to save some money. Please help us prioritise what we need to do and decide how we need to do it.” Yes, it may have taken a bit of time to have had that conversation in a constructive manner, but I’m sure that many New Zealanders would have been up for it.
Instead DOC is now in a position where it has to manage stakeholder anger and outrage.
Community engagement is never going to produce a result that makes everybody happy. But done well, participants should acknowledge that their views were heard and understand what contributed to the final decision being made. They should trust the processes used and be happy to participate in future engagement, knowing that what they may want may not be what is decided.
It’s not rocket science. It’s sound planning that is committed to connecting with communities. That’s what citizens in a democracy like New Zealand should expect.