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“She’ll be right” will not protect New Zealand’s democracy

Guest author

Elizabeth Longworth

Elizabeth Longworth

Guest author in her private capacity
Campaigner for New Zealand’s OIA legislation in 1980s

The survival of New Zealand’s democracy faces unprecedented threats over the next thirty years:

  • Risks from systemic global economic instability,
  • Major upheaval from adaptation (or not) to climate change,
  • Dislocation arising from automated and intelligent machines. 

What kind of national governance system will be sufficiently robust to withstand such forces?

How do we lay the groundwork to develop the societal resilience to tackle these risks? 

Do we want to be governed through a fully functioning and effective participatory democracy going forwards or not? 

In preparing to meet these challenges, there is a kiwi characteristic that could severely impede our capacity to respond; the complacency of “she’ll be right”.

Actually, it won’t be!  Democracies need to be nurtured and supported – or risk having them turn into something else.

Author David Runciman in an interview in The Economist states:

Systems of governance are not immortal…. democracies can devolve into autocracy. As institutions decay and social norms fray, democratic processes and practices are prone to apathy, demagoguery and disintegration”, . Runciman continues:

“Democracy has become something we take for granted and so we tend to assume that it will continue to function no matter what we throw at it. I suspect one reason for Brexit and Trump is not that people have lost faith in democracy, but that they may have the kind of unthinking faith in it that allows them to believe it can survive anything. Far from making democracy invincible this sort of blithe confidence makes it vulnerable; it gives us licence to indulge our grievances regardless of the consequences.”

There are four critical steps that need to be taken in New Zealand to address that same vulnerability, to shore up our democracy and sustain it through the rocky years ahead.

1. Use the Public Service Bill to encourage pro-active open government

The first action would be to treat the changes to the State Sector in the proposed Public Service Bill, as a unique opportunity to start the future-proofing process.

The focus of the Bill is very much around joined-up approaches to delivering Government services and designing for a more unified Public Service. The information documents propose enshrining among the values or foundational principles, certain key concepts of Open Government. However, these concepts comprise only very sparse references to accountability, openness, and supporting and committing to the continuity of democratic and constitutional government.

The commitment of Government to improving transparency is also a core tenet of Open Government. Therefore, the minimalist approach reflected in the Public Service proposals to date, is a missed opportunity. The intention of the Bill appears to be to modernise and equip the public Service to tackle interdependent challenges in a more integrated and holistic manner.

In as much as the Bill is forward looking, it must provide a significant means of shaping our participatory democracy so that it remains fit-for-purpose in the face of the challenges to come.

The Public Service Bill will become the core legislation containing the duties and responsibilities of New Zealand’s officials. As such it needs to change the kiwi mentality from interpreting Open Government as a passive concept that is actioned predominantly via the Q&A tool of the Official Information Act.

Instead the Bill must become an empowering umbrella legislation that gives impetus to a much more dynamic relationship between the public and Government. To achieve this, the Bill will require far more commitment to citizen consultation and engagement than is currently accepted in its background documents. There must be correlating duties and practice guidance on Public Service leadership, to encourage more proactive outreach to those impacted by a policy development

2. Overhaul the Official Information Act 1982

The second action which is now overdue, is to overhaul the Official Information Act 1982.  The OIA predates the digital transformation in online communication and data storage. There are many issues to consider while evolving a freedom-of-information regime to a digital environment, especially where the bulk of useful information is likely to be sourced from email threads.

Various reviews have been critical of how the access right has evolved. There is now mounting frustration by both requesters and officials as to how requests for information are being handled, at the backlogs, and the resource requirements.

If the Public Service is to operate in a more integrated manner, it will be necessary to consider the obligation of central and local government agencies to redirect, and even shepherd, requests through the OIA process.

3. Educate New Zealanders about discerning the truth from posted information

The advent of technology poses a third challenge to sustaining a healthy participatory democracy. The confluence of our reliance on social media, the value of accessing big data, and the potential for manipulation of our biases, all conspire to exert undue influence over our individual view of the world.

A generation of digital natives has missed out on core lessons of living in a digital world – namely, how to discern what is true or not, how to verify what has been posted online, and what can be relied on as a trusted source of information and news. Overseas experience with manipulation of voters’ social media, questions the extent to which an election can now be considered “free and fair”. 

So, it is critical to make a conscious effort to educate New Zealanders about the insidious practices of data mining and micro-targeting. We need to understand the implications of how algorithms work and the subtle, possibly manipulative, ways they can impact individuals’ technology usage and content.

4. Kiwi youth as kaitiaki

The fourth imperative to build and nurture a strong and vibrant democracy, rests with kiwi youth as kaitiaki (trustees, custodians). It is asking a lot, but unless young people are motivated to see themselves as guardians of our future democracy, we are on course for complacency and inertia to prevail. 

There are practical actions that could be taken, particularly reinvigorating and reinterpreting civic engagement and citizenship programmes. This is not about the yawn-inducing lessons on electoral systems. Instead, New Zealand must champion from the top, dynamic education programmes designed for communities, schools and social media use. Such programmes must be founded on the human rights instruments to which New Zealand is a signatory. They must show how essential these rights are to everyday life. 

The centrality of truth as a value, and the importance of science, must be paramount. The emphasis needs to be on participation and engagement in policy consultation and decision-making processes. Emphasis is also needed on how youth and/or the wider public can demand appropriate fora for debate and learn to access the tools of open government to become influencers and activists on the issues they care about.

A key objective is to raise the bar on the public’s expectations so that leaders must be transparent about their policies and political agendas, or else be called to account.

Time to prepare our democracy for the future

New Zealand’s democracy is not invincible. It will become increasingly vulnerable in the face of the tumultuous decades to come. In the same way that we are seeing a shifting consciousness around the need to respond to climate change, we also must prepare our governance system. 

While submissions to the ‘State Sector Act Reform 2018’ closed last year, the drafting of the emergent Public Service Bill can be responsive to this unique opportunity. With objectives based on principles of full and enhanced participation, the new Public Service Act can be empowering of greater levels of civic involvement.

The Public Service Bill now presents a unique opportunity for New Zealand to design a programme of action to ensure that our democracy:

  • Has a strong and vibrant base, capable of carrying the people with it
  • Is built on the principles of full and enhanced participation, transparency and a revamped concept of civic engagement, namely civic activism.

A summary of this article appears in the September 2019 edition of Transparency Times newsletter. 

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