Engaging New Zealand: More Than Government Talking to Government

Truth is a point of view, but authenticity can’t be faked.
Peter Gruber

One of the challenges that we have in New Zealand – like so many other places – is how government engages with people. The intentions are good: public servants are genuinely interested in creating policy and implementing processes that work well for people.

But here’s what’s holding people back: exactly what is engagement and how does it work? ‘Engagement’ is such a broad term and has such fuzzy edges that it’s easy to confuse it with ‘communications’ or ‘consulting’ or ‘marketing’. Or to assume that you’ve ‘engaged’ with the public because you published a Survey Monkey questionnaire.

Even if you ignore all the trends and best practice internationally, all you have to do is listen to the public to understand exactly how much people want to be involved in being an active part of their own governments. Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post [Thoughts from New Zealand: Does Open Source Lead to Open Society?] about my lesson in listening that covers this a bit more.

A little context

In New Zealand, central and local government conduct an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 stakeholder engagements every year. It’ll be no surprise that agencies use methods that fit their own needs and have limited reach to get to all the people who should be counted as stakeholders. And, like everywhere else these days, time is a major constraint for participation so engagement rates are low.

In a previous blog post [New Zealand: Greater than the Sum of its Parts], I told you that:

…as of June 2014, an estimated 4,162,209 of New Zealand’s 4.5 million people regularly use the internet. That’s 94.6% of the population. By comparison, the US number is 87.7%.  And there are 5.7 million mobile phone connections in New Zealand, which is 125% of the population.

So if we can build a strong case for the public sector to use effective online engagement methods, there’s huge potential to improve the quality of government decisions, increase the participation levels in government and reduce the cost of engagement.

But right now, there isn’t an online consultation and engagement service available to government agencies. So agencies repeat processes, duplicate investment in tools and services, and lack capacity and capability in online engagement.

Right now

So, what did we do about this? Well, to start with you should know that it took us several years to build sufficient buy-in across the public sector before we got enough momentum, which we’ve done through engaging people in the concept of a Government Online Engagement Services (GOES). GOES aims to provide a single source all-of-government online service that helps agencies manage their engagement needs.

Over the last few months, we’ve drafted Online Engagement Guidance. On 3 Sep, we published them as a beta so that people can tell us how well they’re working (or not as the case might be).

We built the guidance to meet two key needs:

  1. building the strategic framework for your organization
  2. giving people the practical tools to get started.

The reason to include guidance about both is that we figured you’ve either been thinking about what your agency needs in order to ‘do’ engagement well OR you’ve been tasked with driving an engagement project yourself. Ideally, you’d set up the perfect strategic environment before diving into actually engaging but that’s just not realistic.

One thing I’m really proud of is that we’ve incorporated a set of principles into the guidance that reflect the team’s approach to government ICT:

  1. Build trust through transparency and responsiveness
  2. Encourage collaboration
  3. Encourage openness and learning
  4. Set clear expectations
  5. Be inclusive and reflect diversity
  6. Make engagement standard practice
  7. Honour the Treaty of Waitangi / Te Tīrīti O Waitangi – This is very New Zealand specific: it’s a founding document that set out the relationship between Māori and the British Crown back in the 1800s.
  8. Plan and prepare carefully.

What’s next

The Online Engagement Guidance that we published is a beta. It’s gotten a lot of attention in the first few weeks partly because we were fortunate to have some great guest speakers at our launch event. [As soon as we have the event video captioned, we’ll publish that too.] And we’re starting to get feedback on how we can improve it.

In the meantime, the next phase of the GOES will focus on piloting reusable online discussion forums over the next few months.  We’re meeting with a few teams across the public sector to find a project that we can use to develop this in real life.  Follow our work on the Web Toolkit to see how it all works out.



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