Western Bay of Plenty District Council and Christchurch City Council are leading the way in contemporary community engagement practice in New Zealand by engaging citizens online about their long-term plans.
Planning for the long-term
Under the New Zealand Local Government Act 2002, local authorities are required to produce a long-term plan, covering a ten-year period. In consultation with their communities, councils must prepare long-term plans every three years, and annual plans in the other two years.
The long-term plan is the key planning tool for councils and has five key purposes:
- Describe the council’s activities and the community outcomes it aims to achieve.
- Provide integrated decision-making and coordination of the resources.
- Provide a long-term focus.
- Show accountability to the community.
- Provide an opportunity for participation by the public in council decision-making processes. [emphasis added]
The long-term plan must include information on activities, goods or services provided by a council, and specific funding and financial management policies and information. It outlines all of the various things a council does and how they fit together, and it shows what will be done over the plan’s 10 year period, and why the council is doing things and their costs.
Consultation around long-term plans
There is a strong focus on community consultation regarding the long-term planning process in the New Zealand local government legislation. People can express their views on the long-term plans when they are reviewed every three years. The original 2002 Act set out six principles of consultation (see pic below). My personal favourite is (1)(e) which states that that the views presented to the local authority should be received… with an open mind and should be given… due consideration. [emphasis added]
In 2014, the Act went through a significant review process, and the Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Act 2014 became law on just two months ago on the 8th of August 2014.
Amongst the Amendment Act’s eleven objectives were three that directly related to community consultation:
- make consultation requirements more flexible;
- provide for a new significance and engagement policy; and
- enable more efficient and focused consultation on long-term plans and annual plans.
As a side note, the Act also enables elected members to use technology to participate in council meetings, rather than attending in person.
More specifically, the Amendment Act:
- provides for new significance and engagement policies, to provide clarity about how and when communities can expect to be engaged in decisions about different matters;
- amends the special consultative procedure, so it accommodates new ways for communicating and consulting with the public.
A series of fact sheets and Consultation Q&A sheet have been prepared which provide more information on these changes. The changes affecting consultation fact sheet specifically notes that the changes have been brought in to encourage the use of new technologies in consultation processes:
Overall, this means councils are able to use a wider variety of consultation techniques that may be better suited to different people/communities (e.g. less formal; using new technology) and/or are proportionate to different proposals/decisions.
Another very significant change is the introduction of much pithier, better written and more focused consultation documents than in the past. “The overall objective is to improve consultation on, and general understanding of, the proposed annual plan by reducing the length and complexity of public consultation documents. This is to be achieved by having just one document, which is concise, focused, easy to understand, and does not repeat information that has already been covered in the long-term plan.” The focus of the consultation document has been narrowed down to identifying and explaining significant or material differences between the proposed content of the annual plan and the content of the long-term plan for the financial year to which the annual plan relates.
However, the three issues that must be described in the consultation document relate to:
- significant or material variations/departures from the financial statements or funding impact statement in the long-term plan (for that year);
- significant new spending proposals, and the associated costs; and
- substantial delays to, or cancellation of, significant projects, and associated implications.
New Zealand Councils leading the way
Both the changes to the potential consultation methodologies and the consultation documents have significant implications for the way councils can consult their citizens.
The new consultation provisions have opened up the opportunity to adopt online tools, social networks and social media as legitimate consultation pathways.
The changes to the documentation requirements provide the perfect prelude to the kind of thinking that is required to make online consultation processes effective. The focus on pithy plain English explanations of significant changes (with significant identifiable personal impacts) to previous plans is a great way to frame an online conversation.
Two New Zealand Councils embracing the opportunities provided by the legislative changes and have engaged their communities online using EngagementHQ.
Have Your Say Western Bay
The online forum includes six discussion topics dealing with:
- A vibrant and prosperous district,
- Planning for population changes,
- High-quality council facilities and services,
- Keeping things affordable,
- A clean and healthy environment, and
- a catch-all “What have we missed?”
Your Voice Christchurch
Christchurch City Council launched an online survey to support the “Our City. Our Future” project.
In the video below, the Lord Mayor Lianne Dalziel’s reported to Council on the community engagement process for the long-term plan.
Photo credit: Sid Mosdell
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