Councillors pan email survey bid

TRACY NEAL
Last updated 13:00 15/11/2012

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A survey panel made up of people who have volunteered to comment on a range of Nelson City Council issues was neither a scientific nor objective approach to seeking information, city councillors say.

The council announced last week it was seeking volunteers to agree to be part of a regular survey panel, to find out what residents thought on a range of issues.

The council has set up the email-based People's Panel which would provide an opportunity for Nelson residents to have their say, as well as give guidance for future policies and decisions, the council's manager of monitoring and research, Martin Workman, said. Those who agreed to take part would be sent a survey every six to eight weeks.

Councillors Ian Barker and Paul Matheson challenged the basis by which the survey project was done, and whether it would provide a non-biased result.

Mr Barker, who chairs the audit, risk and finance committee, said at this week's meeting he was concerned the council had asked people to nominate themselves to what amounted to a "citizens' jury". He said the only way to remove the risk of getting a lobby group on such a panel was to select people at random.

"I have some concerns that when a group is set up to provide feedback on what the community is thinking, I cannot see how it could be a scientifically or statistically satisfactory method of getting information that is not biased," Mr Barker said.

Mr Matheson said he was a "bit surprised" that council staff had embarked upon a project seeking public feedback on council issues, when that role lay largely with elected members.

"If councillors are doing their job they should be able to bring the good, the bad and the ugly back to this table.

"If council staff want to know that's fine, but they don't need a panel to do that."

Mr Matheson questioned the real objective of the panel, and if it was only to receive simple feedback, the council risked getting into areas where it would never realise expectations.

Councillor Ruth Copeland supported the idea of the panel, saying it had the potential to dovetail into a range of projects the council was working on. It also represented a move into a new phase of governance. She said there was a real need for community engagement on a level Nelson had not previously had.

"I understand that compared to the other systems this may seem a little frightening. We are going to be required to engage with the community in new ways and this is a step in the right direction," Mrs Copeland said.

Acting chief executive Richard Johnson said the method being used by the council was well established. It was not intended to be scientific, and was merely a device for creating a window into a set of views.

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"It's just input we'd otherwise not have. It's not determinative - we are charged under the Local Government Act to understand the views of the community and the issue around bias is built into these things."

Mr Workman said the council would provide regular reports on how the feedback was being used.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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