In 2018, Hamilton City Council ran a consultation on Citizen Space on their 10-Year Plan for the city.

As the consultation date for the 10-Year Plan approached, administrator Julie Clausen wanted to address some of the issues the Council had previously experienced with public engagement, such as low response rates, long turnaround between the participation period and the accompanying public hearing process, and inefficient work processes for Council staff. The Plan raised some huge issues and would have a significant impact on residents, so it was important to involve residents properly.

The way they ran this particular exercise ended up totally revolutionising the way Hamilton engaged with the public. Delib director Ben Fowkes sat down to talk with Julie about how they did it.

“We wanted to work out how we could get our elected members to see a wider view, and actually to read peoples’ submissions,” Julie said. “Secondly, we needed to work out how to cope with the larger volume of responses that we were expecting.”

New Zealand has legislation in place, under the Local Government Act, wherein certain types of decisions councils make have to have a consultation open for a month, following which the public must be given an opportunity to present their views at a verbal hearing. One of the challenges with this, especially with responses submitted on paper or via email, was getting elected members to actually read and absorb them fully before the hearings.

Shaking things up

“To process submissions, [previously] we would usually export the submissions to Excel and then create a word mail merge template.That in itself is a huge exercise, and then we had to page number them all and index them all and serve them up to the elected members for them to read … Then, of course, the only ones that had access to it were our elected members even though they’re meant to be public documents.

“So we started looking at response publishing, and we could see for us it would have huge benefits; we wouldn’t have to do all that work. But more importantly, it allowed us to actually decrease the time between our consultation closing and when the information could be made available to the public. It allowed us to have our verbal hearings sooner, so that we could condense that whole timeframe, which was taking about two months from the time the consultations had closed until the time we were discussing it at a council table, making decisions.”

[Response publishing] allowed us to decrease the time between our consultation closing and when the information could be made available to the public.

Response publishing is one of Citizen Space’s key features. It gives site administrators the ability to publish respondents’ submissions on the consultation overview page, where consent has been given to do so.

The use of this feature sped up the entire democratic process. “It made it more real-time,” Julie said. “We dropped a whole month from the process.” What makes this more remarkable is that, whereas they had previously expected about 300 submissions, the 10 Year Plan received nearly 3000. They received nearly 10 times the amount of input, yet managed to feed back in less than half the time.

A more efficient process

Previously, it had taken three months from start to finish. “First of all, it was usually about three days before we could even start because we were getting paper copies, so we had to wait to get all of those [in the post]. All that processing took about three weeks at least. We still had to then publish it all and get it printed and sent to the councillors. Our councillors have to receive information for any sort of meeting seven days beforehand. You had to do all of that and still had seven days to wait. It was taking a good month and a half to two months to get to the verbal submission stage. By the time the council were talking about it everyone else had moved on in life…It was just reinforcing the message that when [citizens] do bother to get involved it disappears into the council black hole and they never hear about it again.”

Using Citizen Space meant that access to citizens’ responses was instantaneous from an admin perspective. And using the response publishing feature meant that this access was not only instant but public, too. When it came to public hearings, the ability to filter published responses made the process quicker and easier for councillors, as well as more meaningful for citizens. It also meant that a councillor would only need a laptop or tablet, rather than a sheaf of submissions that had been printed out on paper that they then had to rummage through.

Increased public interest

“Because we could hear what the community were saying a lot quicker, we held our verbal hearings for two weeks,” said Julie. “We had the hearings and the public could see that the decision making was about another two weeks later. So from a community’s perspective, they believed that the council was actually taking things seriously, working hard on something and being proactive and listening to them.

“Previously, we usually had a day of people coming in and bringing their submissions to councillors. This time, we had so many that we had to have five days’ worth of journal submissions. We were starting at 9:00 in the morning and finishing at 9:00 at night. A really high public interest. What the elected members really liked about the published responses is that they could put that person’s name in as a search word, and then they could have that person’s submission there in front of them to remind them what that person had said. They could then ask really specific targeted questions and it appeared as though they really understood what the people were talking about. Elected members were seen as really engaging with the community.”

Elected members could put a person’s name in as a search word and have that person’s submission there in front of them to remind them what the person had said. They could then ask really specific, targeted questions and it appeared as though they really understood what the people were talking about. They were seen as really engaging with the community.

Julie was initially concerned about getting elected members on board with the new process – the youngest were in their forties and the oldest in their seventies – but they loved it. “They loved it for two reasons: one is it meant that using, for example, the keyword search they could search for the people who were campaigning around certain issues. They could search for them and find what the submission was straight away, read through it and get a really good handle on it. And also, they could put in the keyword search topics like ‘Hamilton Gardens’ and then quickly see how many submitters commented about that issue.”

A wider demographic

The relationship between older people and technology was a theme throughout the consultation. Julie and her team worked hard getting people to engage in the survey and share their views. An essential component to this was Citizen Space’s kiosk mode: it enabled her to go into retirement centres and rest homes, armed with iPads, so that residents could participate then and there. “We got quite a good engagement from the older people in our community online, which was great. Otherwise, traditionally they would have completed paper forms, which brings its own issues because you can’t always read people’s writing, which makes their submissions obsolete.” It also meant that the team could head out to busy areas, like outside supermarkets, and make people aware of the consultation. 

Having the technology not only allowed them to take the consultation to a wider audience, but it was more accessible to that audience. “When you jump onto Citizen Space you’re straight in there giving your say. There’s no barrier to it. In terms of something like the ten year plan that had a number of issues, having the technology allowed citizens to go home, and when they’ve got time and headspace to make their submissions. It increases the ability of access more than anything. I think that technology plays a huge part in terms of actually getting a response rather than just giving a reaction.”

When you jump onto Citizen Space you’re straight in there giving your say. There’s no barrier to it…It increases the ability of access more than anything. I think that technology plays a huge part in terms of actually getting a response rather than just giving a reaction.

Julie’s tireless activity promoting the consultation certainly contributed to boosting the response rate. But even though they were looking at ten times the volume, feedback was posted quickly and she made sure that respondents knew about it. “Some of the councils in New Zealand, particularly the smaller ones, still like to write back to every submitter saying thank you for your submission,” she said. “We used ‘We Asked, You Said, We Did’ at the end. We put it out as soon as we could and then we emailed everyone who we had emailed through the submission process.” Putting out feedback quickly massively helped the public’s perception of the Council, the consultation, and the process as a whole.

Democracy in action

“From a democracy perspective, not only could people see the process moving along, but they felt that the council were taking the process and feedback seriously and were actually including that in their decision-making, and it was a lot more transparent than it had been before.”

The feedback that they posted directly took the public’s submissions into account, as well. Rather than just giving a platitude saying their comments would be fed to decision-makers, direct action was taken on the back of their submissions.  “We proposed two large rate increases over 2 years. The community came back and their key message was, yes, we get the fact that we need to have a large rate increase – we need to do it and we want our city to grow. But two years of it is too much. And so the Council has heard that and made it only one year.”

The whole exercise was a brilliant example of how consultation can involve the public in meaningful change, while increasing trust and confidence in public bodies in the process. Hamilton residents were meaningfully able to be a part of democracy in action – something that’s all too rare at the moment.