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Community engagement

Public Participation

Engaging individuals and groups from the community to participate in policy design and development – through:

  • providing information
  • asking for feedback and reaction
  • involving people
  • collaboration
  • empowering decision making and action.

On this page:
Why you should use it
What it involves
What you will get out of it
Ideal circumstances for use
Limitations
Tools or concepts
Centre of expertise
References, guides and key readings
Case Studies

Community engagement

  • Community engagement in policy making allows those who are affected by a decision or interested in an issue to be involved in policy design, development and decision making.
  • Community engagement (according to the International Association for Public Participation) can involve:
    • Informing – providing information to help people understand problems, opportunities or issues, and alternative solutions
    • Consulting – obtaining public feedback on analysis, alternatives or decisions
    • Involving – working directly with the public to ensure concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered
    • Collaborating – partnering with the public in the design or decision-making process, including to identify alternatives or preferred solutions
    • Empowering – placing decision making in the hands of the public.
  • Increasingly communities are working with government to solve complex issues and help shape solutions. In the collaborative space, central government seeks to work alongside community groups and local government. Where appropriate, communities can lead engagement and be empowered to find solutions with support from central government to be involved in some of the heavy lifting of implementation and delivery.
  • Where it's clear legislative change, regulation, or government funding is needed, central government often leads the engagement to ensure there's a coordinated and balanced approach to delivering on the needs of the community and a realistic solution for central, or central and local government, to manage.

Why you should use it

  • Government policy and services are increasingly being designed and delivered through greater collaboration with users or the broader public. This helps to better understand the problem, issues and risks, and to craft solutions that are more likely to meet users' needs and achieve other policy objectives.
  • Participation in government policy making can improve legitimacy and impact. Decisions that arise from open and collaborative processes with strong user input can be more credible.
  • Community engagement is important when hard choices have to be made, when disruption may result, or when we want to govern what people and organisations can do.
  • It may be an administrative requirement or strong recommendation. For example, the New Zealand Cabinet Guide and Cabinet Manual discuss the role of public consultation in respect of the role of Ministers and Cabinet. Consultation is also a component of Treasury's Guide to Cabinet's Impact Analysis Requirements, which relate to regulation.
  • It may be a legislative requirement. Public participation is required in a number of Acts, for example the Treaty of Waitangi, Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act 2011, Local Government Act 2002, Land Transport Act 1993, Resource Management Act 1991 and New Zealand Public Health and Disabilities Act 2000.

What it involves

Community engagement covers a range of activities that involve engaging with individuals and groups in the community. Each of the activities will have its own strengths and weaknesses, and its own rationale for use.

There are some key considerations that apply to all forms of community engagement:

  • Establishing a clear purpose – ensuring that the aims and boundaries of the participation are clear to all, and expectations and risks are managed.
  • Committing to process – following through and using the outcomes of participation in the way you said you would.
  • Demonstrating ethical treatment, respect and sensitivity – understanding the individuals and groups involved in the participation and interacting with them in ethical ways that reflect awareness of their culture, circumstances and values.
  • Ensuring diversity, accessibility and inclusiveness – ensuring equal and fair access to the participation process by all appropriate groups and individuals.
  • Communicating and feeding back – providing accurate and timely information, and ensuring that participants understand how their participation has been translated into action or change.

Importantly, poor community engagement can be worse than no participation in policy making at all. Policy practitioners need to carefully consider the risks and benefits, skills and competencies, timing and approach.

Specific approaches include public engagement, discourse, deliberation, digital engagement and participatory decision making.

What you'll get out of it

  • Ongoing relationships with communities built on trust, respect and reciprocity, if you engage with them effectively.
  • Higher quality policy options, informed by a greater understanding of participants' needs, concerns and priorities. In methods that involve higher levels of participant leadership, public participation can also lead to new options, and a greater confidence in the ranking of options.
  • Reduced political and operational risk, through improved 'road-testing' of policy options, and improved legitimacy through community engagement in the design process.
  • Engagement can be self-reinforcing, creating greater legitimacy and involvement in future engagement – especially when there's clear evidence of the link between participation and action.

Ideal circumstances for use

Making an intentional decision to engage with communities to develop policies and solve problems is not only good policy practice, it's fundamental to the way that government builds its relationship with citizens. 

There are many other reasons why incorporating community engagement into policy development reflects good policy practice, such as:

  • you're required to by law, or by administrative requirement
  • you need to meet the obligations of the Treaty of Waitangi
  • you need to gather perspectives on the problem, and ideas for solutions
  • you need to test and refine ideas for creating more robust solutions, and to iron out potential issues in implementation
  • you want to build legitimacy for tough or complex decisions, showing that the challenges and trade-offs were thoughtfully considered.

Limitations

  • Consideration needs to be given in situations where decision makers have not fully endorsed community engagement, where issues are ethically or morally sensitive, or when other processes (e.g. Select Committees) are already considering the issues.
  • Consideration should also be given to the risks of 'consultation fatigue' amongst participants.
  • A key barrier to good engagement practice can be the readiness and capability of organisations to carry out engagement. This may be able to be addressed through internal skill building, partnering with others and drawing on external engagement expertise.

Tools and resources

Open Government Partnership engagement resources

New Zealand is a signatory to the International Open Government Partnership Agreement. As part of its work programme under that agreement, the Policy Project has produced the following community engagement resources:

Good Practice Guide for Community Engagement – A guide for policy advisors on good community engagement practice, including at each level of the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation.

Principles and Values for Community Engagement – A guide for government agencies and policy advisors on principles and values for good community engagement in policy making.

Getting Ready for Community Engagement – Guidance for government agencies on building capability and readiness for community engagement.

Community Engagement Design Tool – A tool to help policy advisors identify the level on the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation most appropriate for a specific policy project.

Selecting Methods for Community Engagement – Resources to help policy advisors choose the right engagement methods to support good engagement planning.

Guide to Inclusive Community Engagement – A guide for government agencies and policy advisors on inclusive community engagement in policy making.

The Policy Project welcomes feedback from policy teams and agencies to help refine these tools and guidance on community engagement. Please email the policy.project@dpmc.govt.nz to provide us with feedback based on your experience applying these resources in your work.

Other engagement resources

Guidance for conducting citizen juries – guidance on using structured deliberation by members of the public to progress policy

Guidance for central government engagement with local government – guidance on to how central government can engage effectively with local government

Framework and Guidelines for Engagement with Māori – the engagement framework and guidelines assist agencies in thinking about engaging with Māori, specifically, who to engage with, how to develop an engagement strategy; and how to engage effectively.

Centres of expertise

Directory of government agencies that can provide support for inclusive engagement
There are a range of agencies that support other agencies to undertake more inclusive engagement practice. The Appendix to the Guide to Inclusive Community Engagement provides links to population agencies with experience, knowledge and connection to diverse communities and any tools that support inclusive policy making and engagement.

The Department of Internal Affairs
The Department of Internal Affairs is responsible for online and digital engagement tools and approaches. Contact info@digital.govt.nz.
The DIA partnerships team provide advice on engagement with local government.

International Association for Public Participation
The mission of the International Association for Public Participation is to advance and extend the practice of public participation through professional development, certification, standards of practice, core values, advocacy and key initiatives with strategic partners around the world. It provides resources, training, and support for those seeking to apply the Spectrum of Public Participation.

References, guides and key readings

Discovery Workshops Conversation Tracker – The Policy Project ran two workshops to support its work to develop guidance for policy practitioners, to better enable public participation in policy making.

EngageTech Forum Conversation Tracker – The Policy Project produced this conversation tracker, which explores the key themes discussed by a panel of six people.

Online Engagement Advice – Department of Internal Affairs guide to online engagement.

CabManual and CabGuide – Guidance from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet on matters relating to Ministers and Cabinet, including requirements on public consultation.

Regulation – Impact Analysis – The Treasury's guide to Cabinet's requirements for regulatory proposals, including requirements and guidance on consultation.

Ready Reference Engagement Guide – Office for the Community & Voluntary Sector – Supporting government agencies to engage effectively with citizens and communities.

Case studies

Case Study: Christchurch Community Forum – Information about the Christchurch Community Forum which ran from 2011 to 2015, including its operation, challenges and successes.
Regenerate Christchurch – Regenerate Christchurch is an example of an agency using public participation techniques, ranging from traditional consultation to 'design jams'.
Case Study: Criminal Justice Reform Programme
Case Study: Digital Identity Transition Programme
Case Study: Farming Systems Change Project
Case Study: Healthy Homes Initiative – Learning in Complex Settings
Case studies on policy by design – Seven case studies profiled by the Auckland Co-Design Lab

Last updated: 
Tuesday, 3 November 2020

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