Environment Southland

Engaging the Unengaged in Freshwater Planning

With the objective of giving the Southland community a voice, the core aim of the first stage of the project was to simply start the conversation. The client needed to  understand how best to engage people ensuring an engagement plan was designed to reach not just those that are typically open to engagement but also the large sector of the Southland community that do not typically connect and engage with their regional Council. The approach was designed to meet the IAP2 core values for public participation with a bespoke Southland focus on active, informal and integrative engagement.

The project was initiated with a rapid evidence review of perceptions of water and the key learnings from other engagement processes in New Zealand freshwater planning. This ensured learnings from other projects could efficiently shape the process for Southland and that we were not reinventing the wheel.

In response, the traditional focus group structure for general population engagement that divides the population into separate interest groups (e.g. urban/rural/farming) was discarded. This project took a different approach and aimed to foster understanding from the outset, rather than polarising the groups by design.

The general population focus groups designed were also more active in design than the traditional meeting room-based discussion. A broad cross section of the community were represented in each group and sessions took place on farms and at a marae. This prompted discussion by immersing participants in a different experience. The benefits of this approach included:

  • Fostering a shared understanding and educating across groups – creating empathy as a starting point and removing the barriers to conversation created by a lack of knowledge. It removed the difficulties in talking about something where people don’t want to offend or don’t want to get it wrong, so don’t talk.
  • More informal, grass roots approach broke down some of the barriers to engaging.
  • Taps into the pride and passion in farming in the region.
  • Engages with the region’s cultural values.
  • Talks to the region’s love for the land.

The design of the groups received very positive feedback from participants as a way to encourage involvement. They held greater appeal to participants than a traditional focus group, so were seen and as a good way to engage those that would not normally engage.

These sessions were followed up with in-place engagement workshops in locations across Southland. Following training from Research First in qualitative research and moderation skills, these groups were co-hosted by Research First and Environment Southland. A parallel stream of work saw the Environment Southland team engage with residents at public events, supermarkets and retail stores, through an online platform and with targeted attendance at events for young people and the elderly.


The ‘unengaged’ had a forum where they felt they wanted to engage, so they did. The principles of active, informal and integrative engagement served to get a wide group of people involved and serves as a platform to build engagement levels on regional issues going forwards.

Building engagement capability amongst the client project team provided learning outcomes for both organisations and promotes and improves the practice of public participation across the region.

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