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Article Article April 25th, 2019
Energy • Legitimacy • Innovation

Choreographing the system for environmental impact – interview with Vicky Robertson

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"It’s vital that you get [citizens] involved in the actions & solutions as opposed to arguing whether we've got an issue" - @vixrobertson10

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.@vixrobertson10 of #NewZealand's @mfe_news on changing the "I'm an expert" culture in the #climatechange debate

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The path to #ZeroCarbon in #NewZealand is through citizen engagement, explains @vixrobertson10

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Vicky Robertson, Chief Executive of New Zealand's Ministry of the Environment, spoke with Elena Bagnera and Monica Das.

Vicky Robertson knows that without involving citizens in policy development, it will be very difficult to build the broad reservoir of support necessary to urgently reduce carbon dioxide emissions and tackle climate change.

“We have a window of opportunity here, now, in New Zealand. I'm really interested in how we might involve citizens at the front end of policy issues so they feel more engaged from the start and lead us towards solutions that are more enduring.”

Vicky's role has two major components. She is both Chief Executive of the Ministry and Secretary for the Environment. One is a policy function, with a brief to respond to current government priorities and provide active stewardship of longer-term policy issues; the other relates to the Ministry's independent role of reporting and monitoring the state of the environment.

Developing solutions in tandem with the people they will impact

The independent reporting role has been key.  “We have the statistics and the data - and there's no arguing with them. I think, if you get citizens involved, then it's vital that you get them involved in the actions and solutions as opposed to arguing about whether we've got an issue.”

For Vicky, one of the most important things the Ministry can do is “to act more as a choreographer of the system, and by that I don't just mean the public service system, I mean action by real people either in business, on the ground, in schools. We're trying to be the agency that says, ‘This is where we are now, so what's important? What are the priorities for action and what will make a real difference?' ”

This more stewardship-based approach from the Ministry is less about presenting solutions and more about listening to citizens as part of the process of developing solutions.

While public consultation is nothing new, under Vicky's leadership the Ministry has taken it well beyond what we would normally see. We asked Vicky how she approached the recent Zero Carbon Bill, which has been ground-breaking both in terms of the process of its development and in its scope.

Citizens want to engage

“Our approach to the Zero Carbon Bill consultation was absolutely informed by the realisation that citizens want meaningful engagement. Two years before I joined, the Ministry had done a traditional consultation and had heard all the normal voices. Then, in my first year, we started a consultation around water reform that took a different approach. What struck me was the diversity of people turning up to the meetings and wanting to engage.

“This was something new. They were sending us a strong message: ‘We're not just going to give government a mandate and leave it at that, because this issue matters to us and to our local community. We want to be involved in creating solutions along the way.' It was suddenly very clear that we could not simply say ‘This is the option you can vote on'. We needed to take the consultation to the people and really listen to their ideas.”

But how do you empower them in the process?

Laudable aims, but how can government make citizen engagement meaningful? We asked Vicky who the consultation reached and how the Ministry facilitated responses from people who might not ordinarily have a voice.

“We are building our capability to work with different groups. We have a Treaty Partnership in New Zealand which means it's critical we take on board the Maori perspective and involve them at the front end of outlining the issues and developing solutions that will work for them. It's a cause I feel passionate about and we try to extend this approach to other groups. For example, we involved schoolchildren and held workshops with some established groups, including some very young environmental leaders who we worked with. We also engaged with farmers through a farmers lobby group and in fact we now have a group of dairy farmers acting as ‘champions of change'.”

At every stage the engagement was broader, less prescriptive and more varied than the norm. At the pre-consultation stage, representatives of various groups (a student, a farmer, a counsellor, a transport worker, and more) came together to talk about what was important to them. During the public meetings submissions were accepted in a range of formats, including drawings or post-it notes. The consultation also used technology and social media to increase accessibility.

“Both consultations were us dipping a toe into the water. It's an approach that will continue to evolve and I'm keen to keep the Ministry at the forefront of change. It's a new skill set for public servants to go out and listen to the views of a diverse group rather than presenting them with a set of pre-approved options.”

The outcome of the Zero Carbon consultation was that 15,000 people made submissions - as opposed to the 3,000 or 4,000 that's the norm in New Zealand. The next challenge will be to find a way to carry through the diversity of voices to subsequent stages as the Cabinet refines and develops the legislation.

Ultimately, it's about changing the ‘I'm the expert' culture

Another challenge is to promote and develop this more collaborative approach across public service as a whole. It will require, as Vicky acknowledges, a huge culture change. “The policy view of ‘I'm the expert and …' is very entrenched, but we can now demonstrate that a more inclusive and outward-looking approach can work. And if it can work on a big hairy issue like the environment, why not for social issues?”

Collaboration is a key part of this approach and some elements of the Zero Carbon consultation and the follow-actions were only possible, Vicky explains, “because the team were able to bring Treasury and economic agencies around the table using Sprint and design thinking to come up with a collective approach that cuts across agency boundaries. This means cross-sector and cross-local government teams coming together.”

How far could power shift from government towards citizens?

When we asked about the tools to bring about this kind of change, Vicky mentioned design thinking but added, “I've come to see that approaches like design thinking are just tools that reflect the need for a mindset shift. Our job is to get each person in public service to focus more on outcomes, and this requires them to think more expansively. From that starting-point you see that there are a range of tools you could use, depending on the issue in front of you.”

The question underlying this cultural shift relates to power. “In the end it is the constitutional right of the Cabinet to make decisions, so increasing collaboration, engagement and involvement of citizens raises serious questions about the constitution and whether Cabinet can give over power to citizens to develop solutions. In New Zealand this runs alongside the Treaty Partnership between Māori and the Crown, and this is where I think real change will happen.”

So does Vicky foresee a period of increasing change for politicians in New Zealand?

“Yes, change is coming and technology is going to help. The younger generation feel it and our Prime Minister has begun to talk about transparency of government and the ability of the people to be involved.  I'm interested to learn about similar movements around the world.”


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