The plan to merge council water services into big regional organisations is criticised for creating a democratic deficit between citizens and those controlling these essential services, but there is a better way

Three Waters, a large reform programme moving management of storm, drinking and wastewater infrastructure from local government to independently appointed governing boards, will go ahead despite protests of many councils.

Alongside questions around ownership of water-related assets, the key stumbling block for those opposing the move was the potential “democratic deficit” that would result. (A democratic deficit is the gap between the way a political arrangement works in practice (say, the independent boards, which are supposed to incorporate the ‘communities’ voice) and the expected level of democratic input.)

In this case, local councils are concerned the government has denied them a voice by imposing a reform that makes power over arguably their most valuable assets become indirect as councils and mana whenua may propose members of the panel, which then in turn elects members of the independent governing board.

This is the view especially of those councils satisfied with their current water infrastructure management and who perceive little benefit in the reform. The biggest of these opponents is the Auckland Council that just closed public consultations.

In response to these concerns, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta has offered concessions, such as increasing the number of seats on governing boards. While this move may be welcomed by many, it is not clear that it solves the problem of “democratic deficit”.

Local government itself is currently undergoing a review and one key criticism is that democracy at the local level in Aotearoa New Zealand is lacking. Local authorities are under significant funding and capacity pressures and voter turnout is less than 50 percent on average and much lower across demographic groups, such as age, in urban electorates. Citizen understanding of local democracy is low and diverse communities are not adequately represented in elected members of councils and local boards.

Yet effective and democratic local governance is extraordinarily important. Most challenges we face today – from climate change, inequity, housing, racism, and indeed the need for healthy and resilient environments including water – require action at local level.

We study deliberative democracy, which brings together political theory with empirical democratic innovation. In deliberative democracy, representation, inclusion and deliberation are seen as key democratic goals. In a recent interview Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta suggested “consumer panels under water service entities” could be used to ensure democratic accountability. This comment reminded us of the applications of deliberative democracy in water governance, which could provide the missing piece in this current puzzle.

The best known example is the deliberative process was organised by Yarra Valley Water, a large water provider in Victoria, Australia, in which local residents directly assessed their local water corporation’s performance. YVW randomly selected 35 residents according to age, homeownership, location and business ownership status to ensure accurate representation and diversity in life experiences and perspectives. This ensured groups such as renters were not excluded.

In a process similar to a jury (and hence called “citizens’ jury”), they deliberated on the question: ‘We need to find a balance between price & service which is fair for everyone. How should we do this?’

After three months of deliberation with water experts, the group made recommendations directly to the YVW board of directors. This process was far more than a ‘box ticking’ engagement exercise. Rather, it contractually obligated the governing board to give a detailed response to each individual recommendation, and explain why they chose to accept, or reject it.

YVW’s democratic experiment with direct and deliberative citizen involvement was widely regarded as a success, with the governing board taking on all 10 recommendations to incorporate in its business strategies for 2018 to 2022.

So what can we learn from Yarra Valley Water?

First, YVW’s use of deliberative democracy shows there are viable models to ensure democratic accountability that the New Zealand Government could use. Second, YVW’s experience shows members of the public are as good as politicians (if not better) at holding water service entities accountable and contributing to difficult trade-off decisions on behalf of their fellow residents.

We would, however, caution against taking overseas models “off the shelf”. The most obvious first step is to ensure the deliberative model meets obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi. There must also be assurance that we can run deliberative democratic processes that are transparent, impactful and informative, as the quality is key to ensuring the best possible outcomes for local residents. This characteristic stands in contrast to many other democratic processes (for example, referenda) where mass participation is seen as the mechanism for allowing the best outcomes.

These issues are not insurmountable, merely speed bumps to enacting deliberative democracy in New Zealand and not roadblocks. In fact, there are reasons to be optimistic about the use of deliberative democracy in New Zealand.

Earlier this year Watercare, Auckland Council’s regional water corporation, in collaboration with Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, ran a pilot deliberative process about the future of Auckland’s water supply. This deliberative process enabled Auckland citizens to engage meaningfully on how complex issues, such as climate change, population growth and resource constraints, all come together in the problem of water supply.

In four workshops across the city, citizens discussed how water supply can be expanded sustainably and equitably. While the process was much shorter than citizens’ juries, feedback was overwhelmingly positive and Watercare has since committed to running a full length citizens’ jury in 2022. This project could provide local experience and knowledge on how to solve the “democratic deficit” problem in water governance in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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