09 October 2023

What is a deliberative process?

A deliberative process is when a group of people come together to learn about an issue, discuss it and reach a conclusion on what they think should happen. Citizens’ juries and citizens’ assemblies are examples of deliberative processes.[1]  

While deliberative processes are still relatively new to New Zealand, citizens’ assemblies and juries are increasingly used in Europe, North America and Australia to address complex issues and involve citizens in policy making.  

You can learn more about overseas citizens’ assemblies and deliberative democracy here:  

Involve.org.uk – UK examples  

CitizensAssembly.ie – Ireland examples  

MosaicLab.com.au – Victoria, Australia examples 

Citizens participating in the Watercare citizens’ assembly

How do they work?

A process like a citizens’ assembly usually involves selecting a group of people who are reflective of their community and providing them with information about an issue and access to experts on the topic. The group discuss and deliberate on the topic, and reach a decision or recommendation on the issue.  

It’s important that from the start of the process, the group knows how their recommendations or decisions will inform outcomes. Ideally, decision makers should agree from the outset that the recommendations from the group will be implemented, unless there’s a really good rationale not to. If decision makers cannot commit to this at the outset, they should be clear with the group about how their inputs will be used. For example, recommendations will be put to a public referendum or are subject to final agreement by a board, chief executive or oversight group.   

They’ve been engaged, and it’s quite clear they are committed to this as a process

Participant Watercare citizen’s assembly

Why run a deliberative process? 

Deliberative processes have many advantages over traditional consultation processes:[2]  

  • Deliberative processes can be a helpful tool for decision makers and politicians when trying to resolve contentious issues. This is because they provide an insight into public opinion, and can lend support and legitimacy to making the required policy changes, even on contested topics. One example is the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, which considered the issue of abortion legislation in Ireland. The assembly voted 64% in favour of a change to the law to allow abortion, which was closely matched by the results of a later referendum, where 66% of the population voted in favour of legalising abortion in Ireland. 
  • Citizens’ assemblies and juries use a sortition process to ensure the people involved reflect the community across a range of criteria (for example, age, ethnicity, gender and education level). This means a diverse range of voices come through that reflect the whole community. 
  • The group learn about an issue in-depth and must consider the pros and cons of different options before putting forward their view. This makes for a better and more informed public conversation than a survey or opinion poll, as people are well informed on the topic.  

Deliberative processes can support and supplement traditional representative democracy models and are an innovative way to solve complex problems. Policy advisors and decision makers may find a citizens’ assembly helps to progress difficult and contested issues.

This sort of forum is exactly what we should be doing for those kind of really complicated, knotty issues

Jon Lamonte Watercare chief executive

What are the challenges?

  • It costs to run a deliberative process. Costs include things like hiring a venue, planning and organising, paying participants for their time and arranging support such as childcare so participants can attend the assembly.  
  • There is usually a significant time commitment for people to participate in a citizens’ assembly. This can exclude those with care responsibilities and filter out anyone except those with a very high sense of civic duty or those who are already politically engaged.[3] This problem can be mitigated by paying participants and ensuring costs such as childcare are covered.  
  • There needs to be clarity for participants about how their contribution will be used. If leaders agree to make changes based on the recommendations of an assembly, this should be followed through on, or it undermines trust in the process.  

Case study: Watercare citizens’ assembly


Watercare is New Zealand’s largest water utility and supplies drinking water to Auckland. In 2022, Watercare, working with Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland, set up a citizens’ assembly asking the question: what should be the next source of water for Auckland?   

How were people selected?  

12,000 invitations were sent to Aucklanders inviting them to participate in a citizens’ assembly on the future of Auckland’s water supply. 320 people responded to these invitations (a 2.7% response rate, which is consistent with other international examples). From there, 40 individuals who were demographically representative of Auckland were selected.  

How did the process work and what did they recommend?  

The citizens’ assembly took place over seven weeks. In the first session, Watercare presented the problem they wanted to solve and committed to honouring the assembly outcomes. Six options for Auckland’s future water supply were given to the group, along with the ability to add any other option the assembly put forward. 

Over the following sessions, participants were provided with information and different perspectives on the topic. This included presentations from Auckland council planners and a hui with the Mana Whenua Kaitiaki Forum. Participants worked in groups to delve further into options and discuss the criteria they would use to select an option. The assembly then decided on eight initial recommendations, which they whittled down to four. 

Participants then rated how comfortable they felt about options on a scale from “love it” to “loathe it”.[4] After further discussions, the assembly recommended direct recycled water as the next source of water for Auckland, with education about recycled water starting immediately.  

Considerable effort was put into meeting the needs of participants, including providing childcare, transport, assistance for visually or otherwise impaired participants and food that suited a variety of dietary and cultural needs.  

Going into this I was a bit worried I’d be very strongly pushed towards a single option, but it really seems like they’re encouraging discussion

Participant Watercare citizens’ assembly

Lessons from the assembly: 

  • Any deliberative process that is adapted to a New Zealand context needs to be Te Tiriti-led. Building and maintaining relationships with mana whenua is critical, as is including a Māori voice as part of the expert advice provided to participants.  
  • It is important the group taking part in the assembly are reflective of the community as a whole. 
  • Start thinking early about a broad network of experts to draw from and consider other sources of information that could be brought into the assembly. Present information in different formats and at different complexity levels so it works for everyone.  
  • Four full days was only just enough time for such a complex question to be discussed. Five days would have allowed more time for learning and discussion.  
  • There are not many facilitators with experience in deliberative democracy in New Zealand, and it may be hard for a process to succeed with inexperienced facilitators.  
  • The commitment of Watercare to implement the recommendations was important. Deliberative processes that lack a firm commitment from the convenor to carry out the recommendations will struggle to succeed.  

Learn more about the Watercare citizens’ assembly:  

Watercare.co.nz – videos from the assembly   

InformedFutures.org – detailed case study  

Video of the Watercare citizens' assembly