Fog of uncertainty is hampering city's recovery

Roger Sutton, head of Cera heads into a residents' meeting in New Brighton to discuss relocation issues.
Roger Sutton, head of Cera heads into a residents' meeting in New Brighton to discuss relocation issues.

Trust is arguably the single most important factor shaping the success of the greater Christchurch recovery effort.

Thursday's announcement by the Government that it would buy homes in the worst-affected areas underscores the "trust imperative". The buyout decision will enable many people to make vital choices about their futures and get on with their lives.

This and subsequent decisions are difficult and often contentious. Cantabrians need to be able to trust those making pivotal recovery decisions. What needs to be done to ensure that Cantabrians build trust in those responsible for the recovery process?

Empowering leadership and community engagement are the essential ingredients for securing public trust.

The fog of uncertainty hampers recovery. Unfortunately, uncertainty will persist for a long time - especially for those living in the orange zone. A good recovery process is one that people trust will provide clear pathways through this fog. Many people are working extremely hard to ensure good recovery outcomes. They need to be applauded for their tireless efforts.

But the recovery process itself is fog-bound. Few citizens know precisely who is responsible for what; how the recovery process will unfold over time; and how they can contribute to the recovery process.

A plethora of agencies and organisations are involved. The resultant cacophony of voices is confusing and debilitating. Hundreds, if not thousands, of recovery meetings and events have already been held. Many more will be held.

How can Cantabrians contribute to the recovery process? How will their inputs be synthesised and integrated? What impact can they have on agency decisions?

How will the efforts of different agencies be co-ordinated? How will conflicting interests be reconciled? It is difficult to get clear and consistent answers to these questions.

The fog of uncertainty surrounding the recovery process needs to be lifted so that Cantabrians can build trust in recovery agencies. Empowering leadership and community engagement is central to building such trust.

In the immediate aftermath of disaster, the situation is dangerous and there is little debate about priorities. Resources need to be marshalled and quick decisions need to be made to rescue people, evacuate people from danger, secure buildings and provide essential services.

A "militaristic" approach with the archetypal "alpha male" at the helm may be appropriate in crisis. But an empowering "feminine" leadership model, and an organisational culture and practices that are nimble and adaptive are needed when one transitions from response to recovery.

Recovery is complex. It is characterised by non-linear interdependencies and high levels of uncertainty and surprise. Notwithstanding the ongoing seismic risk, the situation is not immediately dangerous. Difficult and contentious choices must be confronted. And time is of the essence.

Empowering leadership is needed to facilitate community recovery.


The prevailing impasse between civic and business leaders about who should lead the city council into the future - the question over the reappointment of current chief executive Tony Marryatt - undermines public confidence in an agency that is central to the recovery effort.

Regardless of one's opinion about who should assume the role, public trust in the Christchurch City Council will only be restored by putting in place an open and transparent appointment process that answers the question: Who is best equipped to provide empowering leadership for the council?

Community engagement is crucial to the recovery process. But what does this really mean? People use this term but often mean very different things. Obviously, there are different levels of community engagement or participation.

In the late 1960s, Sherry Arnstein wrote about a "ladder of participation" that extends from the bottom rung of "manipulation" up through "consultation" to the top rung of "citizen control".

Asking the public to give their opinion so that an agency can sort through the ideas submitted and then decide what should be done is a low level of engagement that can amount to little more than tokenism.


Post-disaster experience worldwide shows that empowering community engagement is vital for effective recovery. Manipulative or token participation quickly becomes apparent. It undermines trust and leads to poor recovery outcomes.

Recovery agencies need to say what they mean by "community engagement". Keeping the public informed about agency decisions is low on the ladder. Given the gravitas of recovery, it is necessary to move up the ladder by ensuring that Cantabrian concerns and aspirations directly shape recovery decisions.

A good recovery process is not a choice between top-down or bottom-up planning and decision-making. It is a governance process. But this is not widely recognised.

Key agencies have been tasked with various responsibilities. Dates have been set for developing locality-specific strategies and plans. Public meetings have been held and more are scheduled. Draft strategies and plans will be circulated for public feedback.

But it is not clear how the activities of recovery agencies are being co-ordinated to ensure that these efforts are heading in the same direction. There are no clear mechanisms for integrating informal recovery efforts into the formal government planning and decision-making processes.

It is not clear how conflicting interests will be resolved. In short, it is not clear what community engagement means to recovery agencies.

Government cannot "do" recovery for quake-affected communities; it is communities that recover. Government therefore needs to work in partnership with communities, including the civil society and the private sector, throughout the recovery process.

Empowering community engagement is not easy to do. It is much more than informing communities. It extends beyond two-way communication to opening up meaningful opportunities for public deliberation: inclusive reflection, dialogue and negotiated decision- making. It is not a PR exercise.


Three pivotal issues need to be addressed in designing an empowering community engagement process.

First, the process must create meaningful opportunities for inclusive reflection and dialogue. Marginalised groups need to have opportunities to voice their concerns and recommend solutions. Local knowledge, professional expertise and scientific understanding need to be integrated. Tangata whenua have a vital role to play.

Public meetings are just one forum for sharing ideas. Such events are important. But they are little more than telephone poles holding up the telephone wires that facilitate dialogue. How will the many meetings and other efforts be integrated to ensure a coherent recovery process?

Second, the recovery process needs to be deliberately designed and facilitated to resolve conflicting interests. Conflict is inevitable and normal. Short and longer-term goals and public and private interests may conflict. Extraordinarily difficult decisions need to be made. There will be winners and losers.

A safe and secure environment therefore needs to be created for inclusive participation and negotiated decision-making. Trusted independent mediators will need to help resolve conflicting interests.

Third, recovery plans need to be "localised" to account for differential seismic risk, address distinctive needs and develop community-centred solutions. Recovery is multi-dimensional but community-specific.

A "one-size-fits-all" approach is inappropriate. Like a patchwork quilt, each local patch has its own particular pattern. But together the patches create a distinctive quilt. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

There are many distinctive neighbourhoods in the city and surrounding region. Activities therefore need to be clustered around local communities.

Community boards have a key role to play in helping to articulate and address the needs of different communities in the city. Emergent groups, such as CanCERN, the Student Army and Future Canterbury Network have a vital contribution to make.

There are also distinctive sectoral needs. The business community has particular recovery needs and essential contributions to make. The recovery process thus needs to disaggregate and then aggregate community engagement through waves of activity that stitch together distinctive geographic, cultural, sectoral and other patches.

Empowering community engagement is difficult to do, especially in post-disaster situations. Recovery is a complex process of community redevelopment in a pressure-cooker. Activities that normally take place over long periods are concentrated in disaster-affected locales and have to be "fasttracked".

Some disaster scholars speak about a "speed v deliberation" dilemma. On the one hand, it is vital to meet the pressing needs of quake-affected individuals and communities. On the other hand, it is imperative to take time to make decisions based on the best available information to ensure that the outcomes of the recovery process stand that test of time and leave a legacy that meets the needs of both current and future generations.

Recovery thus requires simultaneous collaborative planning and action. Empowering leadership and empowering community engagement are essential for resolving the speed v deliberation dilemma. Together they build trust in the recovery process and enable communities to navigate pathways through the prevailing fog of uncertainty.

* Bruce C Glavovic holds the EQC chair in natural hazards planning and is associate director of the Joint Centre for Disaster Research at Massey University. He is an independent academic and does not speak on behalf of or represent the views of EQC.

The Press