Bridging the gap between policy, research and practice: experiences from a community economic development action research project in New Zealand.

AuthorSankar, Meenakshi


Policy makers are increasingly looking to expand the avenues for citizens to participate in shaping policies that affect their lives. Well-informed citizens and communities expect governments to take their views and knowledge into account when developing policy solutions on their behalf. Engaging citizens allows the government to tap into wider sources of information and perspectives, thereby improving the quality of the decisions reached. Community participation, in particular, is gaining significance as communities are becoming increasingly vocal and keen for policy makers to "hear" the voice of their experience. However, the challenge for government is in making this happen on the ground. This paper captures my experiences in undertaking a pilot study using an action research approach to establish an ongoing dialogue between the policy makers and community groups and, in doing so, to provide opportunities for active engagment on key issues.


Citizens are not the enemies of the State; they are the rationale for it. In the new consensus, democracy is not a spectator sport. The new democracy is about participation of citizens. It is a journey where diversity is celebrated, the public good is negotiated, and intense deliberation and dialogue are conducted. It is about being involved. (Wyman et al. 2000:75-76) One of the principles underpinning good governance relates to public participation in the policy-making process, as it "contributes to building public trust, raising quality of democracy and strengthening civic capacity" (OECD 2001). Whereas in the past, policy making was seen as the domain of the government, in modern times, governments all over are moving to a more inclusive, collaborative, deliberative policy-making process (Hajer and Wagenaar 2003:35). Creating these avenues for participation and dialogue allows governments to tap into wider sources of information and perspectives and identify potential solutions, thereby improving the quality of decisions reached. Community participation, in particular, is gaining significance as communities are becoming increasingly vocal and keen for policy makers to "hear" the voice of their experience and expect government to take their views and knowledge into account when making decisions.

The first step to making participation real for communities is for policy makers to establish networks and form collaborations with community and voluntary groups so as to accurately reflect the range of community issues. These collaborations offer policy makers an opportunity to tap into the wealth of knowledge, experience and diversity present in communities, thereby enhancing the quality of their policy advice and ensuring that public policy is informed by what is happening on the ground. This also fulfils governments' desire to develop "bottom-up" policy rather than "top-down" policy. It offers a way for policy makers to establish new networks among the players in the community and increase distribution of knowledge among these players.

This paper uses a Community Economic Development Action Research (CEDAR) project as a case study to illustrate how a government aim of linking community experience to policy making was realised within a policy setting in New Zealand.


Public participation can take various forms and it can include a range of activities: from information exchange, to public consultation, engagement/dialogue, shared decisions and shared jurisdiction in decision making (Smith 2002). It can be expressed as a continuum based on the extent of involvement and role in decision making, from information exchange (least) to shared jurisdiction (most). Smith clarifies that these public participation processes are not separated by definitive boundaries--they flow into and build upon each other (see Figure 1).


A recent OECD publication, Citizens as Partners (2001), discusses a three-level participation continuum: information, consultation and active participation. The continuum was developed on the basis of a survey undertaken with member countries to describe the level of participation that each government engages in. The survey revealed that in most member countries participation in the policy-making process has tended to be mainly at the information-exchange level and has shifted more recently to the public consultation level. While access to information in most OECD countries is a fundamental right, it is only recently that public consultation has begun to be seen as an essential element in the policy-making process in most OECD countries. Even in the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and Denmark, where public consultation is a long-established practice, until recently it was undertaken more informally. The survey notes that very few governments have in fact gone to the next level; that is, to active participation

There is a growing recognition that public consultation as a tool for citizen engagement is limited in that the process is often driven by the policy agencies, and the timetable, format and issues for consultation are defined by the government agency. In such instances, the policy makers set the agenda and communities or voluntary groups are asked to air their views and opinions about the policy, but have little control over the process or the outcome. It is therefore not surprising that communities end up feeling powerless, frustrated and disenchanted with government processes. This disenchantment between policy makers and communities creates an "us versus them" feeling that is not conducive to building a socially cohesive society.

This has led governments to seek out new or improved models and approaches to consulting and engaging with citizens in policy-making processes, so as to gain citizens' and community support and increase understanding of government policy.


Within the New Zealand Government, this desire to shift from public consultation to active participation is well illustrated in the Ministry of Social Development's Statement of Intent on government and community relationships, which states that "the active engagement of community, voluntary, iwi and Maori organisations in decisions that affect them is a sign of healthy democracy." This is a clear signal for government departments to integrate public input into policy-making processes and respond to a community's expectation that their voices be heard and reflected in the policy advice. For communities and policy makers to work together and engage in such active dialogue requires that the relationship be underpinned by "shared agenda setting for all participants, a relaxed time frame for deliberation, an emphasis on value sharing rather than debate and consultative practices based on inclusiveness, courtesy and respect (Institute on Governance 1998).

The New Zealand Department of Labour responded to this challenge in a unique way--by creating the space and the environment for active engagement and sharing of ideas and perspectives between policy makers and communities. The Department initiated a pilot research project to explore...

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