What does good consultation look like?

Asset management, consultation, and accountability.

Long-term planning brings a long-term focus to what, in the case of infrastructural assets, are long-term issues. It helps local authorities be accountable to their communities and facilitates engagement with local stakeholders about plans and choices.

Good quality consultation stimulates the “right debate”. Effective engagement means listening to feedback. Good asset management planning supports effective consultation.

In this chapter, we discuss the characteristics of good consultation and the extent to which asset management planning supports these characteristics.

Local Government Act 2002: Principles of consultation

Section 82 of the Act sets out the principles that apply to consultation:

  1. that persons who will or may be affected by, or have an interest in, the decision or matter should be provided by the local authority with reasonable access to relevant information in a manner and format that is appropriate to the preferences and needs of those persons:
  2. that persons who will or may be affected by, or have an interest in, the decision or matter should be encouraged by the local authority to present their views to the local authority:
  3. that persons who are invited or encouraged to present their views to the local authority should be given clear information by the local authority concerning the purpose of the consultation and the scope of the decisions to be taken following the consideration of views presented:
  4. that persons who wish to have their views on the decision or matter considered by the local authority should be provided by the local authority with a reasonable opportunity to present those views to the local authority in a manner and format that is appropriate to the preferences and needs of those persons:
  5. that the views presented to the local authority should be received by the local authority with an open mind and should be given by the local authority, in making a decision, due consideration:
  6. that persons who present views to the local authority should have access to a clear record or description of relevant decisions made by the local authority and explanatory material relating to the decisions, which may include, for example, reports relating to the matter that were considered before the decisions were made.4

Local Government Act 2002: Purpose of a consultation document

Section 93B of the Act explains the purpose of the consultation document, which is to provide an effective basis for public participation in local authority decision-making processes, by:

a) providing a fair representation of the matters that are proposed for inclusion in the long-term plan, and presenting these in a way that —

  • explains the overall objectives of the proposals, and how rates, debt, and levels of service might be affected; and
  • can be readily understood by interested or affected people; and

b) identifying and explaining to the people of the district or region, significant and other important issues and choices facing the local authority and district or region, and the consequences of those choices; and

c) informing discussions between the local authority and its communities…5

The legislation goes on to define the content of a consultation document, its form, and its manner.

A note about underlying information

Section 93G of the Act states that a local authority must adopt the information that the consultation document relies on, that is necessary for the auditor, and that provides the basis for the LTP.

Guidance from Taituarā — Local Government Professionals Aotearoa suggests what should be adopted (among other plans, documents, and information), including:

  • the plan for the activities that the council proposes to be involved in – for asset intensive services such as roading and the three waters, this will likely include asset management plans; and
  • the full financial strategy and infrastructure strategy.

The point here is that consultation needs to be accompanied by more detailed information that supports the rationale for the consultation, the possible options where appropriate, and the discussion that the local authority needs to have with its community.

What are auditors looking for?

When auditors review a consultation document, we are assessing whether it provides an effective basis for public participation in decision-making – what is sometimes referred to as the “right debate” with the community.

Long-term planning is a process as well as a document, so the “right debate” can take place over months and years.

Auditors want to see consistency – between the issues a local authority is consulting on and what the underlying information says. We also want to be sure that the consultation issues are the right ones and that the underlying information does not suggest that there are other, potentially more important matters to be discussed with the community.

What are the characteristics of good consultation?

In New Zealand, the public sector benefits from a range of good quality guidance to help guide and inform effective approaches to consultation. In October 2019, Taituarā published Telling our stories 2021: Producing an effective LTP consultation document:6

It focuses on the long-term plan consultation document (CD). The CD is the statutory information source for supporting engagement with the community on a long-term plan (LTP). The CD presents the key issues and major matters that your council is proposing to include in the LTP in a manner that is accessible to the public.

Taituarā provided guidance on presenting information to the community. Something similar is planned for long-term planning in 2024. Taituarā’s approach was based around the following six “ground rules” to a LTP:

  1. Long-term planning needs an outward focus.
  2. Long-term planning means long term.
  3. Long-term planning strikes a balance.
  4. Long-term planning tells one integrated story.
  5. Long-term planning is grounded in the present.
  6. Long-term planning requires project management disciplines.

The guidance states that principles 1, 3, and 4 (our emphasis above) are particularly relevant to consultation.

The Department of Internal Affairs has created a range of guidance materials to help the public sector engage effectively with the public to increase transparency and support participatory government.7

They include:

  • Digital Public Service’s Online engagement guidance is a principles-based, good practice guideline on how to plan online engagement, select the right tools and engage with people online. Its aim is to encourage public sector agencies to undertake meaningful and responsive engagement with New Zealanders to build trust and confidence in government’s ability to deliver to people’s needs.
  • The Kia Tūtahi Relationship Accord Engagement Guide provides practical information on how to build strong relationships, plan and undertake engagement processes. This includes effectively engaging with Māori and Pacific people, ethnic communities, [and] people with disabilities.
  • Good Practice Participate is a set of documents that guides public servants on how to involve community, voluntary, iwi and Māori organisations in decisions that affect them and the people and communities they serve.

Allen + Clarke have published a Quick guide to effective public consultation available to the public sector.8 It sets out questions to ask when planning consultation. It also suggests the attributes of good public consultation:

  • The method and level of consultation are appropriate to the policy proposal and audience.
  • The views of the public/stakeholders are genuinely sought.
  • Parties are provided with sufficient information to make informed submissions.
  • There is adequate time for parties to make their submissions.
  • Feedback is carefully recorded and summarised objectively.
  • While you may begin consultation with a preferred option, submissions should be considered with an open mind before any final decision is made.

Treasury have published a guidance note, Effective consultation for impact analysis (December 2019).9 It “provides guidance on how to conduct consultation and tips for producing meaningful, clear discussion documents”. Among other things, it suggests that consultation should be effective and efficient. It defines features of efficient and effective consultation, stating that it should be:

  • continuous;
  • timely – with realistic time to respond;
  • targeted – to relevant groups, including Māori;
  • appropriate and accessible – tailored to people’s information needs and preferences;
  • transparent – allowing people to understand the issues and how feedback will be considered;
  • clear – scope and objectives; and
  • co-ordinated.

Our summary of the characteristics of good consultation

In putting this report together, we summarised all the frameworks and guidance that we discuss above into eight key characteristics.

Eight characteristics of good consultation
1 Outward focused
2 Fair representation of the issues and objectives
3 Can be readily understood, with enough information provided
4 Informs discussion
5 Tells an integrated story
6 Consistent with underlying information
7 Seeks genuine feedback
8 Uses appropriate and accessible means

In the following section, we reflect on the extent to which all eight characteristics were present in the way infrastructure was addressed in the consultation documents for the 2021-31 LTPs. We highlight some examples of what we thought good looked like at that time.

4: See Local Government Act 2002 No 84 (as at 15 November 2021), Public Act 82 Principles of consultation – New Zealand Legislation.

5: See Local Government Act 2002 No 84 (as at 15 November 2021), Public Act 93B Purpose of consultation document for long-term plan – New Zealand Legislation.

6: See https://taituara.org.nz/lg-sectorgood-toolkit.

7: See www.dia.govt.nz/Engagement-and-consultation.

8: See www.allenandclarke.co.nz/.

9: See www.treasury.govt.nz/publications/guide/effective-consultation-impact-analysis.