Long-term Insights Briefing: Written Submission, Philippa Smith, Associate Professor, Auckland University of Technology,
November 2021

Return to Long-term Insights Briefing page

My name is Philippa Smith and I am an Associate Professor in the School of Language and Culture at Auckland University of Technology. My research expertise lies in the societal impact of digital technologies, but also includes closer discursive analysis of the linguistic and visual ways in which people communicate online.

I wish to commend the briefing team for identifying the extremely relevant topic for consultation, ie the future of community participatory democracy in New Zealand, and the role that the government’s increasing use of digital technology might play. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the workshop today to offer my views to you directly and am therefore responding with some comments below which I hope will assist as part of the consultation process.

From 2006-2016 I was part of the research team of the NZ arm of the global study the World Internet Project which surveyed New Zealanders about their use and their attitudes to the internet (funded by InternetNZ and respectively the National Library of New Zealand, DIA and MBIE). I have also researched people with disabilities and their internet use, worked on digital inclusion projects and for the past two years have been on the InternetNZ panel assessing applications from community groups proposing projects concerned with digital inclusion of those in need eg Māori, older members of the community not familiar with digital technologies, and people with disabilities etc. More information about my academic profile is here: https://academics.aut.ac.nz/philippa.smith

As a result of my experience researching the internet, I strongly agree that your proposed topic of community engagement with government through digital technology is well worth exploring given that digital devices, apps and online genres will continue to develop and advance on a global scale, are an essential part of the media communication landscape, and have enormous potential to greatly extend the public’s participation with government which is so important in today's society. The issue however is one of digital inclusion which is why consideration of how government uses/adopts digital technology is necessary. We have already seen with the Covid-19 pandemic that there are communities who have been unable to access the internet or digital devices for financial and connectivity reasons, or who do not have relevant digital skills which has severely impacted people's ability to work from home, or for students to continue their education. A lack of digital inclusion can affect people in a range of different groups. Therefore, care needs to be taken when considering the government’s future role of digital technologies when a level playing field for digital use cannot be guaranteed particularly when the objective is to enable all people to be able to contribute to democratic debate or government decision making.

While the objective of your LTI briefing consultation aims to gather views and information about the role of digital technology enhancing community participatory democracy in the future, it is also useful to look retrospectively to get a sense of how New Zealanders engagement with government online emerged. I am attaching a report (Online Engagement with Government - PDF, 1.5MB) that you may or may not have seen from 2012 about New Zealander’s online engagement with government. The information in this report was gleaned from the larger WIPNZ mentioned above. Although now a decade old, I believe that this report may be useful for the Long-Term Insights Briefing Team to review. Of particular interest are the variables this survey covered when it came to age, gender, ethnicity, household income, urban-rural, and connectivity. I feel that in considering the topic of digital participatory democracy it will be important for the briefing team to consider New Zealanders, not as one group, but a population made up of many groups that can be affected by the choices made by government. This helps to give a better sense of the various digital divides that existed in 2012 and I believe still exist today, though in varying degrees. No doubt there will likely have been shifts particularly as some groups have become more literate and newer digital technologies have emerged (the roll-out of UFB had only been announced in 2009). But when it comes to considering community participatory democracy for the future, it requires an understanding that it is likely that an even-playing field has still not emerged. This report may help to guide you.

I would also stress that motivating people (individuals and groups) to become more engaged in their communities and with government will not be an easy task. Our sense of community, particularly within growing populations and larger cities, has become challenged and I think to a large extent people need to feel empowered and believe that their voices might be heard. In some ways while digital technologies have aided the ability to vote, it may be that a lack of physical presence, the feeling of community, the drive to go out and vote appears to have been lost. Or perhaps this calls for new ways of thinking about how digital technologies might be used to create a better sense of community whether this relates to community websites or other forms of online interaction? It is important that whatever processes are implemented, that these are accessible and easy to use. You cannot assume that everyone is digitally literate, or can keep up with the advances in technology.

Thank you again for this opportunity to put forward suggestions that I think will be of interest as part of the consultative process and I am happy to be involved in any future workshops on this.

Yours faithfully

Philippa Smith
Auckland University of Technology

Return to Long-term Insights Briefing page