On 24 March 2016 New Zealanders elected to retain the existing national flag by a vote of 56.6% to 43.2%, a dissapointing result for the government after many months of work and $26 million dollars spent in the process. The debate and controversies surrounding the NZ Flag referendum are not just indicative of national identity challenge or the pros and cons of the different flag designs. They also provide important insights for enhancing our government’s engagement with the public in future.
Public Engagement and the NZ Flag Consideration Project
When the Prime Minister first announced his decision to propose we choose a new flag, even though polls were not in his favour, I thought it was an appropriate leadership decision. Whilst Key is normally a pragmatic leader, leadership should involve showing vision, and a number of trends in New Zealand society such as reports of the youth being more ambitious and our society generally evolving to be more globally connected made me think it was very possible the country would vote yes.
In today’s world, governments cannot just command us to follow them, the public needs (and expects) to be engaged. Key appointed a Flag Consideration Panel to run a public engagement process from May 2015 to March 2016 ending with us voting in a referendum. However during this period discontent emerged in social media discussion, opinion polls and towards TVNZ’s Kiwimeter which suggested Key had got something wrong. There was an increasing dislike of – if not complete hostility toward – the flag referendum.
On TVNZ’s Q&A programme on the 20th March, the Prime Minister defended the process as flawless. It was in many ways a comprehensive process beginning with discussion about what we stood for, and including a national road show, visits in malls and markets, and a website for people to visit. Anyone could also submit designs for the flag which the panel considered and created a long list of 39 designs before selecting 4 designs for us to vote on.
Research on public input
However there were failures in this process. I have researched government public input in depth, analysing masses of academic and practitioner literature and interviewing 40 practitioners and 51 government ministers and they all point to there being repeated problems in the way governments engage. The flag process fell victim to these two in particular:
- The public feel elites make their decision then consult just for show
- The public can’t see how their input influenced the final design
First of all, the Prime Minister’s made his view that he wanted a change of flag, and wanted a silver fern, very clear. And then, of the 4 options originally given to us, 3 were ferns. This was a major mistake. I do not know why the panel made this decision, but it suggested the public input process was false and a waste of everyone’s time.
Secondly the impact of input on the long and short list was not evident. One of the problems with government engagement is it is hard to demonstrate the impact public input has on the final decisions. We cannot see inside the head of the people on the panel. 10,292 designs were suggested but only 39 selected in the long list. A long open letter from the panel says they were guided by the input but it does not indicate how and there is no real sense of the influence of input. They add information – or criteria that ‘a potential new flag should unmistakably be from New Zealand and celebrate us as a progressive, inclusive nation that is connected to its environment, and has a sense of its past and a vision for its future.’ But this doesn’t convey the relation to public submissions. I understand and I am sure most will why the laser kiwi flag design did not make it.
Worse still, in the long list there were 11 ferns. That is 28% of the list. But in the short list there were 3 out of the 4 originally proposed options were ferns. That is 75%, which does not match the long list, but it does match the PM’s preference. That stinks – rightly or wrongly – of the public input process being just for show.
Was there a rationale for this? On the panels’ website discussion on this it is unclear why they decided a fern was 75% more representative of their criteria. This is staggering. There is nothing wrong with the fern. As a political marketing expert I knew it would work well for national branding. But as far as public input processes go, this was a big mistake. Public engagement has to be real. As one government minister I interviewed, Jonathan Coleman, argued ‘consultation has to be genuine consultation’. Others have also noted that it is better to be transparent about which options are on or off the table in cases where the state has a preferred option or there are resource constraints. Otherwise you just create more dissatisfaction.
Time for a Public Input Commission
The discontent with the flag referendum process was therefore symptomatic of poor public input processes, not just views on flags. This is not a rare problem; democratic governments keep trying to connect with and bring citizens into the decision making but are failing to manage the process effectively.
My research for The Ministry of Public Input argued that to make public input to government work better, we need to create a permanent and institutionalized government unit to collect and process it, that is part of – yet independent from – government. Drawing on interviews with government ministers – including 15 from Key’s own government, this research won the 2015 IAP2 (International Association for public participation) Australasian research award.
A Public Input Commission or ministry would be like the Electoral Commission – a carefully designed and managed permanent institution that has built up the trust of the public over time. We need to create similar institution to run public input processes. Otherwise this will happen again.
And we as a country now have to reconcile ourselves to a flag we may not really want because voting was influenced by discontent with a problematic public input process.
It is time someone in government led the management of a more effective listening and engagement process, because, flags aside, public input into government needs to become a properly resourced, regulated, and designed process run by a Public Input Commission that we can rely on to produce an outcome where no one will question the process, only the policy.
Jennifer Lees-Marshment is an Associate Professor in Politics & International Relations at the University of Auckland. She is the author of numerous books, articles and media contributions on issues of public engagement and political marketing, including her most recent book The Ministry of Public Input (Palgrave, 2015).