Wellington Scoop

The transport ecosystem – in praise of reference groups


by Reference Groupie
Like any large undertaking in human society, public transport in Wellington has a bunch of people who’re closely involved, and far more who’re not. For those who aren’t “in the tent” of that inner circle – like most of us – all we can do between election years is call things out from “outside the tent”, and hope someone in there’s listening.

Who’s in the tent?

The Regional Council’s Public Transport team and their Sustainable Transport Committee have some very smart people on them. And some whose compass of ambition is oriented firmly in the direction of true North: the public good. But these same folks have also presided over some of the most visible collective embarrassments of local government and public services.

So it’s good that they’ve recently set up a Public Transport Reference Group. Call it “a big anteroom to the inner tent”.

Extra happily for us, there are people with rock-solid civic character who sit on it. They’re carefully and thoughtfully engaged, doing piles of readings and preparing material and feedback, constructively critiquing (and giving the odd well-aimed serve) to help get public transport better.

Reference groups, our saviours?

They’re no silver bullet, but reference group type initiatives are a good idea for any major undertaking. Their design and execution need to be done carefully, because you’re selecting a bunch of people to have more influence. And transparency is vitally important, otherwise you’ve got just another shadowy “Advisory group” AKA My Mates From [The Koru Lounge / My Home Town / Sector Who We’re Supposed To Regulate]. (See More Stuff below.)

Their Terms of Reference aren’t on the net, though their existence was part of the “look we’re improving!” briefing that the Regional Council gave to a tense meeting of Parliament’s Transport Select Committee back in December.

What can they actually do?

Reference groups’ influence is constrained, of course; there’ll be a bit somewhere in their Terms of Reference about being “advisory” only, and not being able to talk independently to the media. But these kinds of groups are a vital part of the decision-making ecosystem for any significant undertaking, because they can give decision-makers insight into what the public think.

This is important because while specialists and decision-makers know they must keep focus on the users, it’s really difficult and expensive to get a coherent signal from the ultimate users of public transport – The Real Live Wider Public. We often make a lot of noise, but it’s hard to distinguish noise from signal. And often we’re not making noise about stuff we actually care about the most.

Sure you can go out and ask us, but even mediocre public engagement costs a lot, and when you’re asking questions about complex stuff it’s a dubious investment anyway. On complex things like public transport service delivery, We The Public don’t have the patience to get our heads around much of the complexity, so it’s hard to have thoroughly-informed opinions. Especially when many of us are all out of patience thanks to our #bustastrophe experiences.
So it’s great that there are still-energised citizens willing to roll their sleeves up and engage patiently and constructively with the inner-tent-dwellers on our collective behalf.


Soft influence

And another aspect of reference type groups is the opportunity to use some personal persuasion. The Inner Tent power-holders are, after all, human beings. So if you’re careful to maintain a reputation as someone who’s constructive and considered, there are opportunities.

It’s the compelling cases made in quick chats over the plate of budget muffins. The judicious email you can flick through to the Inner Tent people and know Mr/Ms Big Shot of the Inner Tent is likelier to read it – because you’re not just one of the thousands of outside-the-tent people firing their reckons at you on How You’re Terrible And Here’s How To Fix It.

So, spill already!

What can we learn from the Inner and Outer Tents of GWRC’s public transport landscape? What are they finding out, and what change are they able to make? Over the next few weeks we’ll be aiming to have a few dispatches from inside the “outer tent.” It’s worth noting that transport committee meetings are open to the media, so this is all technically stuff you could hear about anyway if it’s being reported. Some is, like the “we’ve got no drivers” update last week.

To whet your tastebuds, here’s the agenda for the last Sustainable Transport Committee meeting, and some responses to it that are sadly revealing of the state of affairs. (Note: thanks to Mike Mellor for permission to publish his commentary on the meeting.)

Further interesting stuff:
The value of things like reference groups: a nice summary (just read the first bits if you like, they’re good) from the Public Administration Select Committee of the UK House of Commons [875 KB PDF]
What’s significant enough to ask The Public about anyway? Significance policies [2MB PDF] are one way councils decide.

Image credits:
Reference group: screen-grab from video by Study.com
Unhappy tent: Semi-rad.com

This article was first published on the website of Talk Wellington


  1. Heidi P, 1. March 2019, 11:17

    The dutch oven tent! This article makes it sound like the people in the tent making decisions in our name are wise and listen. And yet we know from the submission process they are not wise and do not listen. Problem is they lack intelligence and knowledge, they do not know what is a good idea vs a bad idea so another “committee” (called a reference group) could not change these people. It’s for show, a groupie-trophe .

  2. greenwelly, 1. March 2019, 12:08

    but reference group type initiatives are a good idea for any major undertaking.
    And tell me how well LGWM is going…..
    Reference groups are great if governance organisations
    a) don’t meddle in their operation and b) are prepared to fund and do what they recommend.
    In a year of council elections, I find it unlikely the regional council will do either.

  3. Gillian Tompsett, 2. March 2019, 8:25

    Hard to take a source seriously with an anonymous byline like “Reference Groupie”. Who wrote this? [It came from the people at the Talk Wellington website.]

  4. Ian Apperley, 4. March 2019, 13:34

    It’s an interesting opinion piece. Call it whatever you like, what we are talking about here is community engagement and the process is completely flawed. I do note in the article that, I assume sometimes, reference groups are not allowed to talk to the media. That’s very dangerous, because transparency is already lacking in these areas and this reinforces it. It also reinforces that members “who are inside the tent” are in some kind of position of power or privilege, which is simply untrue. It’s that grateful feeling of inflated importance that can be used to compromise your views and adds to that wonderful thing called Group Think.

    What we know is that the bulk of, let’s call it engagement, with central or local government is largely a waste of time, with a few exceptions. Certainly, in my opinion, the WCC has failed every step of the engagement process despite best intentions. Why? Simple. The decision is often a foregone conclusion and the engagement process is tacked on at the end to comply with the rules. On a local scale we could see this with the initial Island Bay cycleway consultation (where, by the way, the parties involved were accused of stacking the reference group with people who would see the proposal in their favour), the Long Term Planning process, the runway extension, alcohol reform, and so on. The list is extensive.

    Alcohol Reform was an interesting case in point. Multiple community agencies and individuals worked with, what was then, a very good online system that allowed for good debate between differing parties and produced some wonderfully innovative ideas which if put in place arguably could have reduced alcohol harm in the CBD and surrounding suburbs. I was involved in that process, it took three months and an hour of my day every day. All of us were hopeful that we had done some good. The WCC came to their decision. Ignored the advice. Ignored the consultation data. Basically, they had made their minds up months before and just rolled straight over the top of thousands of hours of work.

    I count my involvement in some hundred plus consultations, although of late, I have observed the process but not participated in it. in the vast, vast majority of those, the instigator of the consultation has overridden the feedback and wants of the community.

    What’s the answer? Be the world you want to be. Local government does not listen and will not listen. It is far healthier to remember that they have little power in the scheme of things and you have more. As for central government, well, you have zero control or influence over that behemoth, not even the MPs have that kind of power.

    And tents. Yes, that is appropriate. Because it feels in this political environment a lot of the time we are living in the 18th century.

    Be the world you want.