Participation through communication : an investigation of communication tools used by stakeholders when participating in local democracry : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Business Studies in Communication Management at Massey University
In the face of declining interest in democratic matters, calls for greater participation have resulted in the global implementation of varying degrees of teledemocracy. The changing face of telecommunications, a tool of teledemocracy, has also resulted in a hope that participation will be encouraged among groups, such as youth, who traditionally have not participated in democratic matters. A total of 383 stakeholders from four lower North Island districts, who had made submissions to their local council regarding its 2004 Long Term Council Community Plan (LTCCP), participated in a survey. Additionally, three prominent community members fron Palmerston North, three Palmerston North City Councillors, one Horizons Regional Councillor, and four council staff from Auckland City Council, Tararua District Council, Rangitikei District Council, and Wanganui District Council participated in qualitative in-depth interviews. The Auckland City Council also piloted a project for receiving text message submissions. This was later abandoned because of public and political pressure. The purpose of this research is to investigate which communication tools are considered the most convenient and effective to use when participating in the submission process. Opinions regarding the communication tools currently offered by councils were gathered and compared. Key informants also commented on their attitude to consultation and the effectiveness of communication tools used in making submissions. Further, public and political opinions towards the possible introduction of text messaging to the submission process were also explored. The results indicate that the communication methods used to make submissions can influence how the submissions arc judged, with some tools being regarded by most participants in the research as being more effective. Submitters who were surveyed were positive regarding the current communication tools provided by councils for making submissions. However, the majority also showed high levels of prejudice against the use of text messaging, which is often considered a 'young' communication tool. Submission receivers interviewed showed a clear preference for formally written and oral submissions, demonstrating that some submissions are automatically attributed more value than others according to how they are presented. Consistent with previous research, political participants who took part in the survey were not representative of the wider community. This research showed current participants were more likely to be older, have had tertiary education, and to be either in full-time employment or retired. Despite the widespread call by researchers and academics for greater participation in local democracy, it appeared that the majority of current political participants, as represented by those taking part in the research, are not willing to relinquish their perceived power in the consultation and decision-making process to 'minority' participants, particularly young people The findings of this research indicate although each communication tool or method has its own inherent access barriers, the variety of tools available for use allows current stakeholders to choose one or more that best suits their needs. However, the bias in favour or written submissions supported by an oral presentation means that some submissions are automatically given more weight in the decision-making process than others. One conclusion that may be drawn from this finding is that it is not the communication tools themselves that act as a barrier to wider participation. It is, however, the attitudes of existing stakeholders and politicians, as revealed in the research, that form a barrier to wider participation by discouraging the involvement of younger citizens and those less able or willing to write formal submissions and present them orally in the traditional manner.