Restoring habitats, protecting native birds, eradicating pests, and managing national parks: these are just some of things the Department of Conservation (DOC) does every day. But who would have thought that DOC has also been at the forefront of efforts to restore the promise of e-democracy?
From the early days of the World Wide Web, there were high hopes that the Internet would strengthen democracy by enabling almost everyone to exercise their rights to free speech and engage in public discussions and decision making.
Thirty years on, the hopes and promise of Internet-enabled participation have been overwhelmed by concerns. While we are able to email in our submissions or fill-in surveys, the talk today is largely focused on digital divides, polarisation, fake news, micro-targeting, surveillance and political manipulation.
Given this, DOC should be congratulated for its Biodiversity Strategy consultation, which ran over August and September 2019. In addition to a discussion document and its standard repertoire of submissions, meetings and workshops, DOC used two digital platforms to broaden and deepen participation, and reach people who do not usually engage with it.
To reach more young people, DOC partnered with The Hive, which was developed by the Ministry of Youth Development specifically for engaging young people in policy and decision-making. It encouraged submissions by getting a group of young people to convert the weighty discussion document into digital materials that young people might actually engageme with. The result: almost 300 submissions, mostly from 15- to 17-year-old first time submitters.
DOC also commissioned Scoop to independently engage people using its HiveMind platform. HiveMind allows participants to consider statements about an issue, add their own statements for others to vote on, and to see how their opinions fit with other people’s views. Participants are encouraged to return to the HiveMind regularly over several weeks to read new articles, review emerging patterns, vote on new statements and add their own ideas, perspectives and proposals for all other participants to consider. This is very different from a normal online chat room or the comments section of an online newspaper. It has been designed to enable open discussions about public issues that are safe, coherent and insightful while respecting all positions.
According to Sean Cooper, the responsible DOC manager:
“A key benefit of HiveMind was that it engaged members of the general public who might not normally have been involved in public policy processes.
HiveMind was very useful in helping to identify areas of common ground, that the majority of participants agreed that the Biodiversity Strategy needed to include or address. This helped to reinforce what was heard from other sources and groups, and played a significant role in the final Strategy.
A few examples of where this helped to shape the strategy include:
- The recognition that people rely on nature for their physical and mental health and prosperity. This is a key concept in the Strategy, reflected in the long-term outcomes aimed towards thriving nature and thriving people.
- The view that a holistic approach needs to be taken to consider ecosystems as a whole. This is reflected in the ‘ki uta ki tai’ or mountains-to-sea approach of the Strategy.
- That biodiversity in urban areas is important. There are goals in the Strategy around including indigenous biodiversity in infrastructure and urban planning as standard practice.
The HiveMind survey was also useful in pointing out some of the key areas of tension, where people had different views. This included the value of non-indigenous species and the management of game animals … the HiveMind results helped us to consider what a balanced approach to these issues would look like, taking into account the many different views expressed.”
DOC may not have explicitly been trying to restore the promise of e-democracy but its positive experience with The Hive and HiveMind suggests that that the early hope was not entirely misplaced: quality digital engagement platforms are now available and New Zealanders should be provided with more opportunities to engage in public discussion and decision making using them.
For further information about the Biodiversity HiveMind, including areas of common ground and difference, and levels of participation, click here. Multiple versions of Te Mana o te Taiao, the Aotearoa New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy 2020 are available by clicking here.
Simon Wright is a member of Trust Democracy, an organisation focused on making democracy work as it should. He is also a Partner of PEP, which collaborated with Scoop to develop the HiveMind platform and run the biodiverity engagement.