Part 3: Approaches to improving community participation

Long-term plans: Our audits of councils’ consultation documents.

In this Part, we describe some of the councils' approaches to make the consultation document and the consultation process more accessible.

We also consider the challenges councils face to balance the requirements of the legislation, the discretion allowed in the legislation, and the expectations of the wider community and stakeholder groups about what makes for an effective consultation process.

What council staff told us

We surveyed council staff to better understand what they did to make their consultation document and its issues clear and understandable.

We first surveyed council staff in March 2018 at the Society of Local Government Managers Civic Financial Services Strategic Finance Forum. Survey respondents included people directly and indirectly involved in the overall long-term plan project.

The information collected from our first survey showed that councils were making an effort to use different approaches, such as engaging with the community before the consultation process started. This pre-consultation activity also sought to segment the community by their interests, location, or age to get their views before and after completing the consultation document.

Councils told us that they put a lot of work into making the document easy to read by using plain English and avoiding technical jargon. Council staff with communications expertise were the primary authors and tested draft documents on some members of the public.

For our second survey, we asked 25 councils to provide us with information about their consultation process, the approaches they used, and how effective the approaches were. Seventeen councils responded to our survey. The information they shared with us provided valuable insight into what contributes to an effective consultation process.

The information compared the number of responses councils received during consultation on their 2018-28 long-term plan with the number of responses received for their 2015-25 long-term plan, 2017/18 draft annual plan (if it was consulted on), and 2012-22 long-term plan. For 12 of the 17 councils, there was not much change compared with previous years, regardless of whether they used new approaches to engage with their communities.

However, three councils received a significant increase in consultation responses. They attributed the increase in submissions to how they engaged with the community.

Hauraki District Council received 348 consultation responses (compared with 113 in 2015).14 The Council attributed this to taking more informal approaches to increase community participation.

Ruapehu District Council received 203 consultation responses (compared with 154 in 2015). The Council attributed this to the work it did before the release of the consultation document. One of the Council's approaches was setting up "Chat Spaces" – informal meetings at a neutral venue where people could drop in and speak to elected members and staff. The Council also used these Chat Spaces to talk about "Big Issues". Overall, the Council hosted 33 Chat Spaces throughout the district between August and November 2017. During the formal consultation period, the Council held four more Chat Spaces.

The Council also ran a radio advertising campaign during the 2017/18 summer, promoting the long-term plan before the consultation period began. Once the consultation period started, the Council made 45 Facebook posts to promote the issues. Summary fliers were also distributed and published in local newspapers.

Waimakariri District Council received 850 consultation responses (compared with 233 in 2015). The Council attributed this to public interest in the issues and new approaches used to increase community participation. This appears to have come from the involvement of councillors in new ways.

At local community events, councillors promoted the important issues in the long-term plan. Advertisements that featured individual councillors were placed in the newspaper and videos were available online. A specific campaign was designed to create awareness about the long-term plan to promote important issues in the consultation document and encourage feedback through advertising, digital, and online promotional materials. The Council also contracted a designer to design its consultation document.

Timaru District Council and Dunedin City Council also received more responses than in previous years. Both attributed the increase in responses to public interest in the issues presented. Timaru District Council also attributed the increase to an active and varied community engagement campaign using a range of digital and paper-based approaches.

Other approaches by councils to improve community participation

Other approaches that councils said had a beneficial effect on community participation were:

  • increasing the use of videos to communicate with the public;
  • rates calculators on their websites that could be used to create a personalised assessment of how the issues presented would affect an individual ratepayer; and
  • using informal meetings to provide opportunities to speak to councillors both through attending community events, such as agricultural shows, fairs, and markets, and by holding specific events.

South Wairarapa District Council's long-term plan steering group included representatives from community boards and the Māori Standing Committee. These representatives were able to keep their respective groups and communities informed of what the steering group was discussing. The Council also held meetings with resident sector groups at an early stage, which increased community interest. This resulted in several people from these groups submitting to the long-term plan for the first time. The Council considers that, because people had a better understanding of the long-term plan process, there was more opportunity to contribute to the outcomes of the consultation.

Auckland Council created partnerships with community groups to target diverse audiences (such as Pasifika, Māori, Chinese, Korean, and Indian residents, youths, and refugees). This resulted in consultation responses coming from a more representative profile of Aucklanders. Auckland Council also trained library and customer service staff about the consultation document. As the Council's main public-facing staff, these staff were able to use this training to increase awareness and encourage feedback on the consultation document.

Horowhenua District Council did a significant amount of pre-consultation activity. The Council used the information gained through this process to shape the issues presented in the consultation document and promote the long-term plan consultation process. The Council received slightly less feedback on the consultation document compared with 2015. The Council attributed this to more people understanding the issues and choosing not to submit.

Waikato Regional Council received fewer consultation responses than in 2015. The Council said its pre-consultation work contributed to how the issues were presented in the consultation document. As a result of this pre-consultation activity, the Council had more information about its stakeholders and where there were overlaps between its goals and aspirations. Waikato Regional Council's online activities to raise interest in its consultation process proved successful. Its online consultation document had 788,770 views and 2,147,788 social media impressions.15

Palmerston North City Council created an interactive map of the city that showed the Council's three "Top ‘City Shaping' Moves" to achieve its vision and strategic goals for the city. This interactive map made it easier for the Council to show the community what it was aiming to achieve. It was also a crucial part of the consultation document and the Council's website. The website allowed people to click on the map to get more detail on the projects. People could also make online submissions and "post-it note" comments. This was all part of a more effective digital presence for the Council's 2018-28 long-term plan process.

Environment Canterbury created an animated video about its work, issues, and challenges. This was used during the pre-consultation phase of the long-term planning process to draw people in to provide feedback on draft strategic direction and priorities. The visual style of the animated video was used in the consultation document and other online promotions during the consultation period.16

Stakeholder groups and the consultation process

Every community has a wide range of stakeholder groups with diverse needs and interests. These needs affect how those members of the community perceive the effectiveness of their council's approach to consultation on the long-term plan.

It is important for councils to understand the different stakeholders in their community. In our view, councils will achieve greater engagement with the community during the consultation process if they work with their different stakeholders.

The examples provided earlier in this Part demonstrate the efforts councils are making to reach their communities. However, we continue to encourage councils to look at ways to increase community participation to maximise the effectiveness of the consultation process and outcomes for their communities.

In our 2015 report Consulting the community about local authorities' 10-year plans, we presented the views of Federated Farmers. In May 2018, the Director for the Auckland zone of the Grey Power Federation (Grey Power Auckland) wrote to us expressing concerns about the content of Auckland Council's consultation document for its 2018-28 long-term plan and the effectiveness of the Council's consultation process. In raising concerns, Grey Power Auckland acknowledged that Auckland Council's consultation document and the consultation process meet the requirements of the Act.

Both Grey Power Auckland and Federated Farmers are stakeholder groups that regularly submit to council consultation processes. These stakeholder groups, along with many others, have views that reflect their perceptions and experiences. In our view, there are more general lessons for all councils in the messages we heard from these stakeholders.

In Grey Power Auckland's view, the information that needs to be included in the consultation document is so complex that it is now difficult for ordinary people to take part in the consultation process. Grey Power Auckland believes that there are few people in the community who have the expertise, let alone the inclination, to effectively navigate and respond to this process. Although all councils face the challenge of bringing up important matters with their community in a way that enables an informed response, this situation is accentuated in Auckland because of the size of the budget and the complexity of the issues.

In our view, the views expressed by Grey Power Auckland demonstrate the challenge that councils face in bringing complex issues to the attention of the community as required by the Act.

Grey Power Auckland said it would like to work with the Council on simpler issues than the ones consulted on, such as providing and maintaining services to their part of the community. This will often be the case for individuals and stakeholders in any community. However, the goals of the current legislation are to encourage interest on the broader issues that affect the whole community. Balancing these broad goals with the specific interests of different stakeholders can be difficult.

Grey Power Auckland also said it had concerns about Auckland Council's consultation process. These concerns included how councils consider feedback gathered at relatively informal events, how a submitter's identity and interest in the issues is evaluated when feedback is electronic (as compared to the traditional hard copy submission process), and how the Council groups submissions that have a common theme or point of interest.

The challenge for councils is to give due consideration to all feedback received from the community so that the different approaches used during consultation do not promote input from one part of the community while reducing the ability of another part to participate effectively.

Councils have processes to ensure that elected members are aware of the channels through which feedback has been provided and this information assists elected members to evaluate the relative weight of community opinion. However, the concerns presented by this stakeholder group reflect that it can be difficult for the community to understand the value placed on their feedback by the elected members during their deliberations.

The concerns that Grey Power Auckland expressed to us are not unique to this stakeholder group or to Auckland – they are an example of the perceptions of those in the community. Councils need to maximise the effectiveness of the consultation process while balancing the perceptions of those in the community with the specific requirements and the discretion provided by the legislation. Achieving this balance is not easy.

14: Excluding responses provided through Facebook and face-to-face sessions.

15: Impressions are the amount of times a post is seen by the people it has reached.

16: The Environment Canterbury video is available on the Environment Canterbury YouTube channel in the long-term plan playlist.