Let the people have their say in three waters



The plan to merge municipal water services into large regional organizations is criticized for creating a democratic deficit between citizens and those who control these essential services, but there is a better way

Three Waters, a broad reform program to shift the management of storm, drinking water and wastewater management infrastructure from local government to independently appointed boards of directors, will continue despite protests from many boards.

Along with questions regarding the ownership of water-related assets, the main stumbling block for those who opposed them was the potential “democratic deficit” that would result. (A democratic deficit is the gap between how a political arrangement works in practice (eg, independent boards, which are supposed to incorporate the voice of “communities”) and the expected level of democratic input.)

In this case, local councils fear that the government has denied them a voice by imposing a reform that makes indirect power over their most valuable assets, as the councils and the mana whenua can nominate members of the panel, who in their turn. tour elects council members. independent board of directors.

This is the point of view in particular of the municipalities satisfied with their current management of hydraulic infrastructures and which perceive few advantages in the reform. The biggest of these opponents is the Auckland Council which has just closed the public consultations.

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

Local government itself is currently under review and one of the main criticisms is the lack of democracy at the local level in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Local authorities are under significant funding and capacity pressures, and voter turnout is less than 50 percent on average and well below all demographic groups, such as age, in urban electorates. Citizens’ understanding of local democracy is weak and diverse communities are not sufficiently represented in elected members of local councils and councils.

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

We study deliberative democracy, which combines political theory and 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 that “consumer panels under water service entities” could be used to ensure democratic accountability. This commentary 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 organized by Yarra Valley Water, a large water supplier in Victoria, Australia, in which local residents directly assessed the performance of their local water company. YVW randomly selected 35 residents based on their age, property, location and business owner status to ensure accurate portrayal and a diversity of life experiences and perspectives. This ensured that groups such as tenants were not left out.

In a process similar to a jury (and therefore called a “citizens’ jury”), they deliberated on the question: “We have to find a balance between price and service that is fair to all. How should we proceed ? “

After three months of deliberations with water experts, the group made recommendations directly to YVW’s board of directors. This process was more than a “tick mark” engagement exercise. Rather, it contractually obliged the board to give a detailed response to each individual recommendation and to explain why it had chosen to accept or reject it.

YVW’s democratic experiment with direct and deliberative citizen participation has been widely viewed as a success, with the board adopting the 10 recommendations to be incorporated into its business strategies for 2018-2022.

So what can we learn from Yarra Valley Water?

First, YVW’s use of deliberative democracy shows that there are viable models for ensuring democratic accountability that the New Zealand government could use. Second, YVW’s experience shows that members of the public are as good as politicians (if not better) at holding water utilities accountable and contributing to tough compromise decisions on behalf of their fellow citizens.

We would, however, like to warn against taking foreign models “off the shelf”. The most obvious first step is to ensure that the deliberative model meets the obligations of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. There must also be assurance that we can execute deliberative democratic processes that are transparent, impactful and informative, as quality is essential to ensure the best possible results for local residents. This characteristic contrasts with many other democratic processes (eg referendums) where mass participation is seen as the mechanism for achieving the best results.

These problems are not insurmountable, they are just speed bumps to build deliberative democracy in New Zealand, not roadblocks. In fact, there is reason to be optimistic about the use of deliberative democracy in New Zealand.

Earlier this year, Watercare, the Auckland regional water company, in collaboration with Koi TÅ«: The Center for Informed Futures, conducted a pilot deliberative process on the future of water supply in Auckland. This deliberative process enabled the citizens of Auckland to engage meaningfully on how complex issues, such as climate change, population growth and resource constraints, come together in the problem of water supply.

In four workshops across the city, citizens discussed how the water supply can be extended in a sustainable and equitable manner. Although the process was much shorter than the citizens ‘juries, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and Watercare has since committed to organizing a full citizens’ jury in 2022. This project could provide local knowledge and experience on the issue. how to solve the problem of the “democratic deficit” in water governance in Aotearoa, New Zealand.


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