In conversations with Wellington City Council and Local Government NZ, author Jon Alexander is championing a citizens' assemblies to improve participation in decision-making. Photo: Andy Galloway

The Three Waters tensions are a symptom of a deeper democracy and legitimacy problem, says a visiting author, that can only be addressed by allowing New Zealanders to participate in decision-making

Some will know Jon Alexander for rowing for the Cambridge University team in the inaugural Great Race against Waikato, 20 years ago. Some will recall his works as a London ad-man, such as Cadbury’s famous drumming gorilla.

But when the author of bestseller Citizens arrived in New Zealand this weekend (for the first time since that ill-fated rowing race in 2002) it was to address local leaders on the need for participatory democracy using tools like citizens’ assemblies.

He says deliberative democracy processes could make “a massive difference” in mending the fractured relationship between local and central government.

Dr Tatjana Buklijas: Citizen assemblies offer hope for democracy
Campbell Guy & Dr Tatjana Buklijas: Let people have say on Three Waters

“It seems pretty clear that the Three Waters situation is a symptom of a deeper democracy and legitimacy problem, and that this deeper problem can be, and probably will soon need to be, addressed more directly and constructively.”

Alexander’s New Citizenship Project consultancy has advised The Guardian and the European Central Bank, and he is now talking with Massey University, Local Government NZ and the Future for Local Government review team. Ahead of a Wellington City Council-hosted speech on Tuesday, Alexander spoke to Newsroom in Auckland.

For him, he says, there was a crisis of conscience when he was working at one of London’s most celebrated advertising agencies, Fallon, which was responsible for British mega-brands like Cadbury, Sony and Orange.

“I remember sitting around the table going through hero products for a big retailer for their Christmas ads – in May, which is already a bad thing. And someone said, oh, the £1 Christmas tree, you can almost smell the exploitation. And everyone laughed.

“It got to the point where I came to see working in advertising as essentially preaching a religion that I just didn’t believe in. I was standing on Oxford Circus Tube station, and I just threw up – it was a physical kind of revulsion.”

For our consumer-driven democracies, he says, there is a similar crisis of legitimacy.

It’s come down to a choice between “an Orwellian authoritarianism” as in Russia, and a “consumer” democracy in which self-reliance becomes an extreme sport.

“The richest have their boltholes in New Zealand and a ticket for Mars in hand,” he writes. “The rest of us strive to be like them, fending for ourselves as robots take jobs and as the competition for ever-scarcer resources intensifies … This is a future shaped by the whims of Silicon Valley billionaires. While it sells itself on personal freedoms, the experience for most is exclusion: a top-heavy world of haves and haves-nots.”

Through his book and his consultancy work, Alexander has gained renown for championing a third way. Rather than effectively defining defining ourselves as “subjects” or “consumers”, he argues for a new type of “citizen” who is willing and able to participate in democratic decision-making.

There are several ways in which this can be expressed. He talks glowingly about Taiwan’s pandemic response

“Taiwan showed the world a way through the pandemic, building its response around three principles – fast, fun, and fair,” he says. “This led the Taiwanese government to open its data, run challenge prizes for apps to track face mask availability (and much more besides), trust people enough only to restrict movement on the basis of ‘participatory self-surveillance’, and even create a hotline that any citizen could call with ideas for what more could be done. The result? One of the lowest case-fatality rates in the world, without ever imposing a lockdown.”

But in his conversations with Wellington City Council and Local Government NZ, he is particularly championing a Citizens’ Assembly akin to a model gaining momentum in Europe.

He points to a draft recommendation, from the Future for Local Government Review, to revitalise deliberative democracy processes to ensure everyone has the information, time, and access they need to participate in council decision-making processes. The draft report proposes exploring and trialling new forms of participatory and deliberative democracy and learning from other
countries and organisations.

The Brussels-Capital Region has announced it will launch a permanent Citizens’ Assembly on Climate next year, bringing together 100 citizens to select topics, deliberate and come to recommendations. And the city of Paris has approved the creation of a standing Citizens’ Assembly that guides policy, and has committed to distributing more than €100m (NZ$167m) a year through participatory budgeting. 

These assemblies are a little like upper houses in bicameral legislatures, and they are not elected. Rather, they are chosen by “sortition” – a process like that used in opinion polling, to find a representative random sample of citizens.

Alexander is an adviser to a new organisation called DemocracyNext, an international non-profit institute whose chief executive has led OECD work on innovative citizen participation, like replacing elections with sortition as a way to reimagine and rebuild democracy.

He suggests a citizens’ assembly as a next step in the Future for Local Government Review. “This Assembly could be tasked with digesting, streamlining, and calling additional witnesses – and then producing a final set of recommendations, which the Government would commit either to enacting directly, or at very least to giving a public response.”

“This last point reflects the minimum commitment recommended in the OECD guidelines on best practice in deliberative democracy, published following a major review of over 600 processes from around the world.”

He argues that the review should be done first, and make an explicit recommendation on Three Waters systems as part of its mandate.

“The review of local government should have been triggered by Three Waters to go, ‘hang on, clearly, local government in this country isn’t functioning as it needs to. So what are the right levels? What are the right powers? What are the right structures? What are the right processes that mean that we treat the system problem, not the surface symptoms’?”

He acknowledges there have been many years in which local authorities have failed to maintain and upgrade water infrastructure. “I’m not naively saying that local government hasn’t failed, that it hasn’t made any cock-ups. 

“What I am saying is that their cock-ups are a symptom of their lack of real buy-in and lack of a deep relationship with local people, and that is what has to be addressed – rather than going, you little people are idiots, we’re going to take this upstairs with the adults.”

Echoing the draft findings of the Future for Local Government Review, he says central institutions don’t trust local institutions, and local institutions don’t trust central institutions. “It’s a vicious circle,” he says. “Introducing people into both local and central decision-making, if you make both more participatory, then you’re actually solving all of that.”

Already, an experimental deliberative democracy process has been used by Watercare to get input from Aucklanders on future water sources, after being issued its last consent to draw drinking water from the Waikato River. Assembly members, selected from those who responded to 12,000 invitations issued randomly using NZ Post and Watercare databases, learned about water supply options from multiple perspectives.

They had discussions with local and international experts, including mana whenua representatives, Auckland Council and Watercare, before deliberating and drafting recommendations. The process was designed by a team led by the University of Auckland’s Dr Tatjana Buklijas, with MBIE Smart Ideas research funding, in collaboration with Watercare, and with advice from international academics and advocacy organisations.

Alexander says local and national climate responses, or national security, are also areas where a national deliberative and participatory process could be powerful. “James Shaw would, I think, be well advised to look at the People’s Plan For Nature campaign in the UK that I am part of the design team for, which sees organisations slightly outside government working to crowdsource a set of recommendations for national government, but also local government and community groups.”

In the first instance, he will be talking on Tuesday to Wellington Deputy Mayor Laurie Foon and the city council’s climate team about participatory democracy in its response to climate change.

“New Zealand could and should lead the world in adopting these approaches – it’s deep in the spirit of the nation.

“For example, I’ve just discovered  the concept of papanoho, which is apparently the space between the twin hulls of a waka, where the crew would gather at key times to deliberate and agree a course of action, drawing on different expertise (stars, wind, sea creatures) – which is a pretty good analogy and source of process inspiration for a citizens’ assembly.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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