White Noise in Auckland; how Auckland Council needs to be dynamic in reaching its citizens when talking Auckland Plan

Making People Come to You While Erasing Identity will never help people participate in Democracy

A question? Is Auckland Council’s consultation processes for things like the Auckland Plan and Unitary Plan geared towards our Pakeha population or is it geared towards a particular Class and Age?

The long-format story from Radio New Zealand titled White Noise delved into that question and the answer is not as clear cut as the question would have put out. Well actually perhaps it is that clear cut as my fried Jess explained in a very simple Tweet:

However, that would end the blog post right there and there and I don’t quite think the Government is about to burn both the Local Government Act 2002 (that gives authority to Councils) and the Local Government Act 2009 (gives authority to Auckland Council) so lets flesh out the White Noise a bit more.

Is Auckland Council’s Consultation Processes dominated by Pakeha?

In short yes!

However, even with Pakeha it can be broken down into a sub-set on who are our most prolific submitters: Over 55, middle-high incomes and/or own property. The demographic statistics from Consultation feedback reports show this trend time and time again. Underrepresented are under 34’s (particularly under 24s), Maori and Polynesian, and renting. Those who identify from Asia are showing up more strongly in Consultation processes and are often the second biggest group behind Pakeha themselves which is encouraging to see . However, given our Governing Body of Auckland Council is still rather White (although Councillors Hill and Newman do lower the average age of our representatives).

However, Auckland Council is just more than the Councillors, Mayor and Local Boards it is also the officers – the staff who carry out the day to day work on behalf of the organisation. Officers can include the ones the people and businesses in Auckland would deal with on a daily basis, they being: Consenting Plannings, Building Inspectors, front line customer service staff including the call centre, food safety inspectors and so on. Other officers also come into play (and can have direct impact on policy) that the public would not have daily interaction with (but still do so when things like the Auckland Plan are out for consultation) include Policy Planners, engineers and Finance.

Combine the Officers and Elected Representatives together and we get the institution that is Auckland Council (and its CCO’s like Auckland Transport). It is the Institution (rather than an individual) and its mindset (or culture) that will ultimately determine how the City is reached and its attitude towards the public feeding back into the Institution on things like the Auckland Plan!

The Institute is White

That sign spotted in Auckland Council public pools caused a stink and is a demonstration of a White Institute.

Those trams are to cost us $2m and the decision to run them went against Officer advice. Combine the trams with Mayor Goff’s $1m on a report for the Waterfront Stadium folly, Auckland Transport’s ride-share shuttle in Devonport and Auckland Transport again slashing bus services in South Auckland while hiking fares at least 7% hurting the lower income groups while the upper white income groups get trinket trams and glorified taxis and you can see how the term White Institute arises.

The money wasted on the trinket trams, stadium reports and the glorified taxi could have gone some distance in keeping those fare hikes down. Better focus grouping would have told you that swimming message was going to cause a stink.

If you want to see Officers get tied up in knots watch one of the three Council Committees the Independent Maori Statutory Board participates in (Planning, Finance, and Environment/Community). It happens more often than not that the Institute didn’t do their job properly and it attracts the ire of the IMSB. And for the record when I give Public Input to the Planning Committee I also face questions and have done so by the IMSB so before presenting doing your homework prior is rather critical.

Even with the IMSB, it is because Auckland Council is a White Institute (see Tweets above) we get still daft decisions and Officers being tied up in knotse this that will have a compounding effect against those who were already marginalised.

The Auckland Plan as a Demonstration of a White Institute

26,000 pieces of feedback to the Auckland Plan 2050 refresher might look good at face value however, break it down and it is not so good on social demographic representation:

However, of the already tiny number of 2050 Plan submissions from the area, nearly half were from Pākehā residents, outnumbering the 41 percent that came from Pasifika. So not only is Māngere-Ōtāhuhu severely under-represented among the total submissions; the Pasifika majority there, which you might expect to be speaking with the loudest voice, is instead being drowned out.

quote context: http://pllqt.it/MCq7uw

Being drowned out at ratios of two to one if not higher has a severe impact against those communities who simply do not have the resource or have an institute that does not come to meet them in Auckland’s largest planning document (The Unitary Plan comes in at second).

This is a problem with the Auckland Plan and Auckland Council have been warned of erasure of identity in Southern Auckland when the Super City has formed, and that erasure is still present in the current Auckland Plan today.

The erasure of identity comes from two parts:

  1. Minimisation language of Southern Auckland and its Core – Manukau through Pro City Centre-centric policy and planning
  2. Not adapting consultation methods to meet the needs of a given population group

Southern Auckland and its core Manukau faced erasure of identity by Council and third parties since the inception of the Super City and the first Auckland Plan. I remember going to Council committees and the Unitary Plan Independent Hearings Panel to re-elevate Manuaku back into a prime position but the pro City Centre-centric drive of the Planners would make that extremely hard.

Fast forward to the Auckland Plan 2050 and both South and Manukau were elevated although erasure of identity was still in play by the same groups. Manukau would be elevated to a Node (one step below the City Centre and one step above a Metropolitan Centre) and this would show on the maps. However, at the last minute the Nodes were removed from the maps and Manukau would be seen as just another Metropolitan Centre again (pictures are further down).

This is erasure of identity by a White Institute and third party groups against a Centre that acts as a core for the largest and fastest growing sub-region in Auckland. Yes Southern Auckland is larger than the Isthmus and is growing faster than the Isthmus as well.

There is good news in all this gloom through two sets of blessings:

  • The Southern Initiative is doing great work with the people of the South after a rocky start and this has been recognised
  • the South receiving the lion’s share of the Auckland Transport Alignment Program (ATAP) funding.

I will get back to erasure of identity in a moment.

Otara-Papatoetoe-Manukau and the Southern Motorway. Auckland

Fighting Back to increase participation?

The Māngere-Ōtāhuhu local board has already been pushing council officers to make the feedback process friendlier and less opaque, Lemauga Lydia Sosene says. Stop asking people to grapple with multi-page forms, or attend a meeting at an inconvenient time. “We ask officers to have a BBQ of some sort – something more than just a cup of tea and a biscuit – so that we can call our people to say come along, and then you can have an engaged conversation. And rather than gather your thoughts on an actual form where you’ve got 20 questions, actually a couple of post-it notes – which are quicker to record your thoughts on.”

The next hurdle is to convince both council staff and councillors to treat that information – along with other non-traditional forms of feedback like Facebook comments – as seriously as they would any other type of submission, she says. “We’ve got to find ways of making it easier… I get constant complaints that Auckland Council processes are not easy to get involved in.”

quote context: http://pllqt.it/ewnDd0

Council have been told more than once to sharpen up with consultation processes since the Super City was formed in 2010.

While I am reasonably digitally savvy, master Social Media to sway policy, write a blog and am mobile this is not true of others in the Southern Auckland (though no fault of their own).

The council is trying out various social media and digital tools, Aiolupotea says. An interactive website set up by Panuku, the council’s development agency, is currently soliciting feedback on plans to redevelop the centre of Panmure. Users can drag icons onto a map of the area to say what they like already, suggest changes or ideas, or highlight safety issues. Whether it’s attracting people who otherwise wouldn’t get involved is difficult to tell just by looking at the site, although users are asked to provide demographic information.

UpSouth, another online tool, targets south Auckland communities, asking questions that people can respond to in any form they choose, and paying a nominal amount of money in exchange.

However, the type of participatory democracy used in the Southern Initiative’s project isn’t always feasible, he says. “Council obviously thinks that’s really, really important for us to do, but the practicalities though – in terms of our ability to provide that opportunity all the time, in every instance – that makes it quite challenging.”

It’s a battle to even make some communities aware they can help shape the city around them. “When I joined council I had no idea as to the extent to which it actually impacts on my life and I think that would be the same for a lot of Pacific people,” he says. “Finding the way to engage with them in a way that they can see the relevance of council is really, really important.”

quote context: http://pllqt.it/hv55nu

in terms of our ability to provide that opportunity all the time, in every instance – that makes it quite challenging.” The public simply and bluntly do not care for that, they have a simple expectation that all available tools are made available readily to fit into their “schedules” not Councils. And strangely enough Panuku Development Auckland through Our Manukau have managed to nail this form of participatory democracy down (where as the main Council has not).

When consultations are on that affect South Auckland both Panuku and now Auckland Transport come to the people where the people are likely congregate the most – Manukau City Centre itself. The team at UpSouth and Our Manukau will also personalise events and reach out to various segments of the community through various means (face to face and digital) to gauge feedback on various schemes.

So as the White Noise article by Radio NZ said; in fairness there are various aspects of the Council working to break down those barriers and it is working. BUT! And yes here is the BUT there are still large roadblocks in place.

The council does appear to be trying hard to reach a wider audience, Jess Berentson-Shaw says. But even some of the new tools the council is using may not reach the most marginalised Aucklanders. “The process of online consultation immediately cuts out a lot of people who don’t necessarily have access to the internet.”

Language is still a barrier: the Panmure website explains its purpose in several languages, but the interactive icons are only available in English, and so far all of the comments left have been written in English too. Likewise, UpSouth seems geared towards English speakers too.

The change that’s needed is more radical than just using different tools anyway, Berentson-Shaw says – it’s changing the consultation itself. She doesn’t buy the argument that participatory forms of decision-making are too costly or time-consuming to use all the time. “It’s the difference between upfront cost and long-term value.” And Auckland Council could start now. “Why not be bold? Why not say we’ve seen the data, we’re not okay … that the same people get included so we’re going to make a bold statement and try a new way.”

quote context: http://pllqt.it/NQ2Gpb

Manukau Node Source: The Auckland Plan

Dr Berentson-Shaw holds the same thought as I do that in short the public does not care nor buy into the argument of participatory forms of engagement is costly or time consuming. The Council is meant to come to the people not the other way around and this again is a symptom of a White Institute geared to a White mobile population who have the time and mobility. (Note: White in Social Anthropology terms means the dominate demographic group in a geographic area, the minority groups will usually be referred to as Other (an issue in itself))

The Māngere-Ōtāhuhu local board has already been pushing council officers to make the feedback process friendlier and less opaque, Lemauga Lydia Sosene says. Stop asking people to grapple with multi-page forms, or attend a meeting at an inconvenient time. “We ask officers to have a BBQ of some sort – something more than just a cup of tea and a biscuit – so that we can call our people to say come along, and then you can have an engaged conversation. And rather than gather your thoughts on an actual form where you’ve got 20 questions, actually a couple of post-it notes – which are quicker to record your thoughts on.”

quote context: http://pllqt.it/AKEnLg

South Auckland are chatty lot and can be quite loud too, it is who we are as a people and community. BBQ’s and big community events will pull the punters in and when food, drinks and kids activities are pumping the people come flocking. The church I go to in Manukau throws its doors open each year to the community (The Light Party) which attracts thousands of people of all ages). Such an event would be perfect for the Council to set up a stall and talk all things South Auckland with the community (over a sausage, ice cream and fizzy).

Again Council needs to go where the people are not make the people come to them. Also presenting a consultation form as multiple pages of text with some pictures to elicit a response across multiple pages will bore me silly let alone anyone else – so Council needs to stop doing that and work better on other forms of engagement as mentioned above.

For me personally I will feed back in one of three methods:

  1. Tweet short form feedback
  2. Go to events and meet the Officers in person (the Auckland Conversations event in Pukekohe was a good example of this)
  3. Blog on it

If I have blogged on it I will not be in the mood to go repeat it all again on a feedback form and as result I will email Council with the links of said blog posts (I did that with the recent Airport to Botany Rapid Transit feedback last year).

But again Council needs to go where the people are not make the people come to them (repeat something three times and people usually remember).

Aerial photo of Manukau centre. Source: Panuku

Remember erasure of identity I mentioned earlier?

However, the type of participatory democracy used in the Southern Initiative’s project isn’t always feasible “

Even if it was (use of participatory democracy) the suspicion the South might hold towards the Council would be not hard to miss. While the Southern Initiative has always been there other aspects like UpSouth are only more recent. Meanwhile Manukau having to reforge its identity against City-Centre-centric politics was something that should not have needed to be done in the first place (something I will cover in another post).

Getting people in less affluent areas to participate in a democratic institution that has effectively participated in erasing their identity for the last eight years and only now it is being slowly recognised albeit still hamfisted (remember Manukau, the Nodes and the map? Yes identity can be as simple as a dot on a map).

I certainly remember in 2015 when Transform Manukau (now Our Manukau) was mentioned that I clearly stated community participation must be at the forefront of the urban regeneration work. Fast forward to 2019 and Panuku have lived up to that request with Auckland Transport also getting there (Airport to Botany, and Manukau Station Road bus lanes).

So while Our Manukau and Airport to Botany are projects that are working in reaching out to the community the Auckland Plan 2050 exercise certainly was not. The AP2050 was still an exercise of both making the people come to Council while still erasing identity of the South’s City Centre (The South will identify Manukau as their Core before they will with the main Auckland City Centre).


Eight years of City Centre-centric policy coupled with the perception of a White Institute was never going to win over much of Auckland’s diverse population. From tone-deaf signs at swimming pools, erasure of identity, cumbersome consultation processes and the case of under/over representation of particular demographics the instruments of shaping policy in Auckland were always going to be skewed in one direction as well as particularly slow.

While I am mobile, digital savvy and can influence Auckland Policy (yes I recognise my own White Privilege) I would be deemed an outlier on the demographic scale compared to the rest of my peers in Southern Auckland.

However, the fixes are extremely simple to drive engagement and as we have seen it is basically laziness of Council that prevents that increased engagement.

Participatory Democracy (so Council going out to the people) is demonstrating (as Panuku and AT know) being the best tool in engaging the South and so it should be widely extended (remember we are a very social and vocal lot). However, Council whinging about is more on their laziness than apparent resource shortfalls (more like putting budget money into wrong areas – aka going to things where it should never be going like Stadium reports) and that is unacceptable. If the South is more likely to participate and will participate in participatory democracy then Council should facilitate this.

Remember Council comes to people not make the people come to it.

Screeds of pages in English that require a response on screeds of pages also in English is never going to work either in getting people to participate.

Getting out to big community events that are on should be compulsory as well for Council.

Which reminds me? Remember my Urban Room post? Having a permanent Urban Room in Manukau that is open seven days a week illustrating Auckland and particularly South Auckland where displays are interactive and feedback can be done either digitally or post it notes would go a long way in driving participation in how the South is shaped over the next few decades.

Great stuff is being done like The Southern Initiative and Our Manukau but a lot still needs to be done as the Auckland Plan 2050 demonstrated.

Panuku on Manukau (Panuku also reads the blog) Source: High Level Project Plan presentation to Auckland Council

Reference: WHITE NOISE – Some Aucklanders have more say in their city’s future than others