Let’s Talk | Kōrero mai is the dedicated online engagement space of Rotorua Lakes Council, New Zealand, the local government body serving a diverse bicultural district with growing urban, rural, and lakeside communities. Over 2017-2018, the platform saw a significant rise in the number of visitors and participants having their say on a variety of community and district issues, including a landmark collective vision for the region’s shared future. While this highlights the community’s enthusiasm for bringing their knowledge and priorities to decision-making for the region, it underlines the Council’s commitment to nurturing the culture of engagement that continues to sustain these vital online and offline conversations and collaborations.
Setting out a path for progress
Rotorua’s culture of engagement is embodied in Vision 2030 – The Rotorua Way, a blueprint initiated in 2013 and reviewed in 2016 and continues to guide the direction of the annual, long-term, and spatial planning and decisions on key priorities. The Rotorua Way is the result of a partnership between Council and community to set out a pathway to realising a shared vision for the region’s future. It identifies how the region’s special qualities, priorities and crucial areas of focus for infrastructure, services, and policy can make a difference to achieving these shared aspirations. In this way, it encompasses the region’s strengths, challenges and opportunities on economic, social, cultural, and environmental fronts.
Community engagement “the Rotorua Way” brought decision-makers, local communities, and stakeholders together to talk about the region’s distinct character, where the region looked to go, and how it could best get there while retaining its uniqueness. It set up directions for planning and projects that drove further conversations on what was to be done, where, and how.
In 2017/2018, the conversation highlighted the need to prepare for residential, industrial and commercial growth with development of the Rotorua Spatial Plan. Future housing areas and encouraging affordable housing emerged as an area of focus requiring relationships, resources, and planning to cater to the needs of the community. Road infrastructure, on the other hand, needed to grow to address rising traffic volumes and required for future industrial growth; while beloved local forests and lakes areas require tourism infrastructure and environment protection. Additionally, major lakeside development project called for intricate planning with community and key stakeholders while a local aquatic facility needed further investment and partnership to better serve the growing community.
Over a six-week duration, consultations on the Long-Term Plan 2018-2028 employed an integrated process of digital and face-to-face activities. The Long-Term Plan 2018-2028 is a key strategic document in the delivery of Vision 2030, addressing projects such as the East Rotoiti Rotomā Sewerage Scheme, upgraded community recreation, museum, and aquatic facilities, the revitalising of Rotorua’s inner city in the Manawa – Heart of the City project, the redevelopment of the Rotorua Lakefront.
As a strategic document, the long term plan enacts a collective visioning and problem-solving approach driven by open and measurable conversation between Council and community that form the core of Rotorua’s culture of engagement.
Creating a culture of engagement
“It was important to take the organisation on a journey of reconnecting with our community and being more reflective of our community.” – Mayor Steve Chadwick JP, Rotorua Lakes Council
The transformation to a culture of engagement at the Council was spearheaded by Mayor Steve Chadwick JP in her focus on community-led development since she was elected in 2013. The executive management team brought about an internal cultural change which embedded community engagement into decision-making in a substantial and lasting way. This change was built on strategic approaches and mechanisms put in place to help Council and community to unpack, imagine and achieve better decisions together.
The Council builds community engagement on a strategic foundation of best practice principles facilitated by a team of Partnership Advisors. Rotorua looks to the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation to align the type of engagement with the degree of significance of the issue at stake. Rotorua’s Significance and Engagement Policy guides Council on assessing the significance of proposals and issues for clarity on when and how the community may be engaged. This policy frames significance in terms of criteria such as importance to the district, to Rotorua’s Māori communities, community interest, consistency with ongoing strategy, and impact on council resources. Staff are supported to be equipped with the skills to design and deliver engagement activities through continuous learning and capacity-building across the organisation.
Takeaways from Rotorua’s journey to building a culture of engagement
In its core values, the IAP2 spells out standards that speak to the purpose and meaning of public participation in decision-making. Community engagement in Rotorua distinguishes itself in speaking to these values. It also holds many insights for community engagement practice more generally.
- Looking beyond legislative compliance, Rotorua acts on the belief that the knowledge and experience that its communities bring to the table are crucial components of impactful and inclusive decision making. This approach underlines local expertise in issues that affect them and activates ongoing conversations to identify and address needs, problems and priorities.
- Strong leadership and internal-buy in are a key transformative element in Rotorua’s story. Mayor Chadwick’s community-led vision and the efforts of the executive management team revitalised and reinvested in the relationship between government and community. Bringing everyone on board, Rotorua’s leadership enabled a cultural change that traveled into greater connectedness with community and better insights to inform decisions.
- Rotorua’s engagement framework illustrates the need for representation and inclusion in creating equitable conversations. It also sets a standard that ensures inclusivity in creating Rotarua’s shared vision.
- Through evaluation, the Council reviews its processes to make sure that their engagement is fair and equitable – and, in a way in which the community want to submit feedback.
- A focus on communication through integrated engagement approaches is key to delivering on Steve Chadwick’s promise of engaging the Rotorua Way. This demonstrates that the Council is listening, learning, and responding to community feedback. It also emphasises the Council’s commitment to nurturing the relationships vital to a healthy and vibrant culture of engagement.