Palmerston North City Council (PNCC) became concerned that when it usually consulted on plans and projects it only heard from people with a strong interest in the issue. While these views were valid and useful, the Council was never sure whether the views received represented those of the whole community.
Some theories suggest that communities have moved from a consumer society to a customer society, and have now moved to a citizen society. This model assumes that people want to take active roles in discussions and decisions about the future of their communities, and that councils have not kept up with this change in community expectations.
PNCC thought that this theory oversimplified the situation. Some people do expect to be involved in decision about their communities; they want to come to meetings and to make submissions. But there are many other people who do not want to do this. Nor are they particularly interested in using new social media techniques, like Facebook and e-petitions.
The National Research Bureau’s CommunitrakTM Survey results for PNCC support this view. Survey results over the past ten years consistently show that about 20% of people want to be involved in all levels of council decision making, about 65% want to be involved in major decisions only, and about 15% want the Council to just get on with doing things.
Based on these survey results, PNCC divided people into the following three (broad) groups:
- People who are very interested in what the Council does.
- People who are not particularly interested in what the Council does unless they are directly affected. This group is the ‘silent majority’.
- People who are not interested at all.
PNCC needed to better understand the views of the ‘silent majority’. But by their very nature, PNCC could not rely on this group of people coming to the Council and saying what they think. It needed to find a better way of interacting with them.
In order to access the thoughts and opinions of the ‘silent majority’, PNCC commissioned PublicVoice to develop a Citizens’ Panel.
The PublicVoice Citizens’ Panel is designed to ensure that PNCC get the views of a group of people that they would not otherwise hear from. Panel members are randomly selected, and people cannot choose to go on to the Panel. The surveys are designed so that it is very simple – and interesting – for people to respond. The panellists are randomly selected and most of them do not take part in PNCC’s other consultation exercises. This means that PNCC Councillors and Managers are getting information from the ‘silent majority’. This improves the quality of the Council’s decision making; PNCC can be assured that it is basing decisions on reliable information from a representative group within the community.
The PNCC Panel has over 1,100 randomly selected residents who answer monthly surveys. The survey is emailed to the panellists, and the panellists respond by clicking on appropriate buttons and typing in responses to open ended questions. The process is very straightforward and quick for Panel members.
The Citizens’ Panel has provided PNCC with a very easy way to gather views on a wide range of topics. It has also succeeded in engaging the local community, with 85% of participants finding being on the panel very interesting.
The Panel has been used to ask questions about a whole range of topics, including rates options for the Draft Annual Plan, how safe people feel, and how prepared people are for civil defence emergencies. The results are mainly used for policy and plan development. The Panel also provides useful information to the Council to assist it in monitoring community outcomes.
Remembering that Panel members are representative of the Council’s population as a whole, the Panel has greatly assisted the Council by providing qualitative community feedback to inform its decision making.