Communicating with central government
One of the roles of community groups is to bring issues to the attention of government so they can be addressed at a national or local level through legislation. Community participation is a vital part of democracy, and community organisations represent people and opinions that might not otherwise be heard.
Some of the more common ways of having your say with central government include:
- making a submission to a select committee
- making a submission to a parliamentary inquiry
- petitions to Parliament
- official information requests
- talking or writing a letter to a Minister or your local MP (Member of Parliament).
Government policy development
In order to influence government decision-making, it is useful to understand the typical pattern of policy development by central government. This is represented in Figure 1.
Government Policy Development Cycle
Community organisations are typically involved in the policy development process at two stages:
- Defining the Problem (stage 1) and Developing and Analysing Alternatives (stage 2). These are the stages when the government consults the relevant stakeholders. This should include consultation with relevant groups on issues that affect the community.
- Evaluation (stage 5). This is the stage when government agencies seek feedback on how well their policies and initiatives worked.
While there are no absolute timeframes for government policy development, there is an overall Annual Budget cycle that can provide a general timeframe for focusing your efforts:
- the government financial year is from 1 July to 30 June
- Budgets are usually announced in May for the following year
- the first two stages of the policy development cycle will be going on up to a year earlier. By August/September of the previous year, the budget process will be underway, with government officials developing proposals. However, groups should note that there are always more proposals than available funding, so many worthwhile proposals do not make the cut.
Lobbying is a planned effort to advocate and influence political decision-making. Some lobby groups (such as the Business Roundtable) are rich and powerful and able to put a lot of resources into lobbying. Community groups seldom have much in the way of resources, but they do have the most important resource of all: people, and as a resource they can be as powerful as money.
Lobbying is important because:
- what you have to say can make a difference to policies and legislation
- it is a legitimate part of a democratic system allowing people to have their say
- it provides a vehicle for you to communicate your kaupapa, philosophy, values or beliefs
- your perspective and knowledge is valuable and unique. Members of Parliament, policy-makers, councillors and officials need to be informed by people working at a grassroots level, from which they are often removed.
Successful lobbying usually involves both direct and indirect lobbying. Direct lobbying involves meeting face-to-face with political leaders and others of influence, discussing proposals and arguing your cause (see direct lobbying checklist). Indirect lobbying can involve bringing pressure to bear through the media so that an issue receives public attention, in preparation for a direct approach. It may also involve visiting opposition party members or opponents in the business community.
Direct lobbying checklist
The following checklist can be used as a guide to directly lobbying someone, including a Minister or local MP:
- make appointments with those you want to lobby and ask how much time is available so you can use it to your best advantage
- have two or three well-briefed speakers
- prepare a written summary of your case, your organisation's origin and credentials and its area of work, refer to it at the meeting, then submit it when you depart
- agree on the order of speaking and the issues each speaker will address
- assign someone to be the record-keeper
- arrive five minutes early
- introduce your party
- note who is present and who you might best contact later
- make your most important points first
- be ready to summarise if your time is cut short
- understate your case rather than overstate it you only want the person to agree with you, not join you
- be prepared for questions and know what are your long term as well as your immediate goals
- present your case clearly and base your arguments on solid facts
- use visual aids if possible
- be confident or at least give the appearance of confidence
- leave when you have covered all the ground
- write a note of thanks for the time you were given to present your case.
- In the case of a local Member of Parliament (MP), where electorate clinics are usually run on Saturdays and/or Sundays:
- make an appointment through the electorate office
- remember the meeting is more informal and probably shorter with less media interest than a Parliamentary visit
- make a particular effort to gather and summarise expressions of local support (which to an MP are potential votes)
- be as prepared as you would be for a Parliamentary visit.
Tip: For more information on lobbying, see Political Lobbying: How to plan and deliver a strategy written by former MP, Tim Barnett - http://www.volunteerwellington.org.nz/ (see Resources section).
Making a submission to a select committee
Making a submission to a select committee is a good opportunity to have your voice heard by government and be part of the decision-making process. Essentially, this is giving your opinion on a new law (all of which start life off as a Bill) or a change to an old one.
There are up to 13 subject-area select committees, each focusing on one or two national topics like health or justice. There are also five specialist select committees which deal more with procedural matters, plus any number of ad hoc committees that are set up from time to time for particular purposes. About seven to 12 MPs from different parties in Parliament work on each select committee; committee membership can change.
Tip: For more information on all select committees, visit: https://www.parliament.nz/en-NZ/PB/SC/
Examples of the current subject select committees are:
- Commerce - business development, commerce, communications, consumer affairs, energy, information technology, insurance and superannuation
- Education and Science - education, education review, industry training, research, science and technology
- Finance and Expenditure - audit of the Crown's and departmental financial statements, Government finance, revenue and taxation
- Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade - customs, defence, disarmament and arms control, foreign affairs, immigration and trade
- Government Administration - civil defence, cultural affairs, fitness, sport and leisure, internal affairs, Pacific Island affairs, Prime Minister and Cabinet, racing, services to Parliament, State services, statistics, tourism, women's affairs and youth affairs
- Justice and Electoral - Crown legal and drafting services, electoral matters, human rights and justice
- Law and Order - corrections, courts, criminal law, police and serious fraud
- Local Government and Environment - conservation, environment and local government
- Māori Affairs
- Primary Production - agriculture, biosecurity, fisheries, forestry, lands and land information
- Social Services - housing, senior citizens, social welfare, veterans affairs and work and income support
- Transport and Industrial Relations - accident compensation, industrial relations, labour, occupational health and safety, transport and transport safety.
A full list of select committees can be found here - https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/sc/scl/
One of the jobs of the select committee is to examine Bills and then report back to Parliament. The select committee finds out what New Zealanders think through a public submission process. This means that anyone can see what you (or your group) have said.
How do you know what Bills are being proposed?
The New Zealand Parliament website has a section called Bills (proposed laws) - https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/bills-and-laws/bills-proposed-laws/. Another section is dedicated to select committees, where you can see the Bills that are currently before select committees, which submissions are being called for, the closing date for submissions and where to send your submission. You can also see submissions different organisations have made on Bills. Go to: www.parliament.nz/en-NZ/PB/SC/. Most Bills are also advertised in the public notices section of newspapers around New Zealand to encourage submissions.
The submission process
A submission may be written or verbal or a combination of both. You may speak to a written submission and it is usual to present written material to support a verbal submission. An effective and powerful submission is a simple one that sets out your own or the group's views on the subject.
Some useful tips for making a written submission to a select committee are:
- Get a copy of the Bill you wish to make a submission about. They can be bought from Bennett's Government bookshops or Bills Digests can be downloaded from the New Zealand Parliament website - https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/bills-and-laws/bills-digests/. The digests summarise the content of the Bills and are easier to read than the Bills themselves. Each digest also contains a link to the document of the Bill in full.
- Discuss the Bill as a group. Do a bit of research. What are other people saying about it? It might be useful to plan your submission with other groups who share your views.
- Sort out the key points you wish to make about the Bill. In most cases limit this to one to three main points to keep your submission focused.
- Write your draft submission. Say:
- Who you are give your credentials for making a submission on the Bill. Include your name and contact details.
- Whether you support or oppose the Bill and why.
- What impact it might have on the people that you work with.
- Keep your submission short and to the point. Use sub headings for the different points you make.
- Try to be constructive even when you totally oppose the Bill.
- Get someone else to check your submission before you send it off. Ask them to check:
- how clear your message is does it make sense?
- that the submission keeps to the subject of the Bill
- if anything needs more explanation. Remember, you are the expert in your field, you can't expect the members of the select committee to know the details about your area.
- spelling and grammar it all makes an impression.
- Say whether you want to appear before the committee. This can be very useful to make a point especially if you are based in or near Wellington, or the committee is hearing submissions in your area.
- Check the closing date, how many copies you need and send it off. Remember to keep a copy, especially if you are going to appear before the committee.
Some tips on appearing before a select committee and presenting an oral submission are:
- Find out who is on the committee and, if possible, what their views might be. Identify your potential allies on the committee. Your task is to help them build their argument for/against the Bill.
- If you can, go along to a meeting of the select committee and observe how it operates. A weekly schedule is posted on the Parliament website: https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/sc/schedule-of-meetings/ . This indicates what sessions are open to the public.
- Appearing before the committee is an opportunity to put a human face to your submission. You will be invited to present your submission and then answer questions. Keep your presentation short and:
- introduce yourself, your group and your credentials for making a submission on this topic.
- outline the key points in your submission very briefly, but don't go into details. Committee members will have already read your submission so you don't need to read it out.
- give an example of how this proposed legislation will affect people you work with. This adds a personal touch that can get the committee members more interested than statistics.
- don't be put off by difficult questions stick to your points and what you know. It's a good idea to make sure you have someone with direct fieldwork experience who can illustrate your points with anecdotes and examples that give the human dimension.
Tip: For further details on the submission process (written and verbal), refer to the booklet Making a Submission to a Parliamentary Select Committee available from the Parliament website: https://www.parliament.nz/en/document/00CLOOCMakingSubmission1 .
Decision maker's 'How Parliament Works' is also useful: http://www.decisionmaker.co.nz/guide2003/hpw/selectcoms.html#submission
Select committees can also hold inquiries within their subject area in response to some community concern. They can call for public submissions and request evidence from organisations that may be the subject of the inquiry. After considering the evidence, committees may report to Parliament with findings and recommendations. The Government must respond to recommendations within 90 days.
- These parliamentary inquiries vary in nature according to the relevant concerns at the time. Examples of some recent inquiries include:
- inquiry into the operation of the Māori Community Development Act 1962 and related issues by the Māori Affairs Select Committee (initiated 29 July 2009)
- inquiry into how to improve completion rates of childhood immunisation by the Health Select Committee (initiated 12 February 2010)
Tip: You can find out what inquiries are open for submission by referring to the New Zealand Parliament website - https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/sc/business-before-committees/ .
Working parties / advisory groups
In many policy areas, government agencies may establish joint working parties or advisory groups that include representatives of community organisations. Some examples of significant policy projects that involve community sector representatives are:
- the Office of the Community and Voluntary Sector's Generosity Hub project to grow the level of giving in all its forms in our communities
- the Ministry of Social Development's Taskforce for Action on Violence within Families, including the Campaign for Action on Family Violence initiative.
Typically, these groups will call for formal submissions from the community sector during a consultation period and may also hold consultation meetings and hui to hear community views.
Petitions to Parliament
People can request that the House of Representatives take action on a matter of public policy or law, or to address a personal grievance, by presenting a petition to the House, through their local Member of Parliament (MP).
A petition is a document signed by one person or many people. The petition is referred to the appropriate committee, which decides whether to seek submissions from affected people or organisations. If the committee reports to the House with recommendations, the Government must respond within 90 days.
Petitions don't generally contain the same large amount of supporting evidence as a submission. However petitions should:
- have the front page signed
- have each page containing signatures headed with the petitioner's request
- use respectful, moderate, and to-the-point language
- not have any attached documents
Tip: For full details on how to prepare a petition and the petition process, refer to the booklet Petitioning the House of Representatives available from the Get involved section of the New Zealand Parliament website https://www.parliament.nz/en/get-involved/features/anyone-can-be-involved-with-parliament-heres-how/
Official information requests
Official information is any information held by government, including:
- government Ministers
- government departments, organisations and state owned enterprises
- the New Zealand Police
- city, district or regional councils
- school boards of trustees, universities, polytechnics and other tertiary education institutions, and
- district health boards.
Tip: A full list of the organisations you can request information from is listed in the Directory of Official Information available from the Ministry of Justice website: http://www.justice.govt.nz .
The two Acts governing access to official information are:
- the Official Information Act 1982
- the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987.
The guiding principle is that information must be made available unless good reason exists under the Acts for withholding it.
Anyone can make a request for information from those people and organisations listed above and the process is the same for all of them.
Some useful tips on the official information request process are:
- Put your question in writing and explain clearly what you are asking. Remember to include your address so they know where to send a reply.
- All requests should be answered within 20 working days. If it will take longer, the organisation or Minister will tell you about the delay and the reason for it.
- Generally, the first hour of time spent processing a request and the first 20 pages of photocopying, are free. A fee may be charged but this has to be reasonable and related to the cost of providing the answer to your request.
Tip: For more details on official information requests visit:
Writing to politicians
Every day politicians make decisions about things that affect your community and your life. If you want them to make decisions that will be good for you and your community, write it down and let them know what you think.
You could write a letter by yourself, on behalf of your organisation, or you could organise a letter-writing campaign.
The first thing you need to work out is who the best person is to write to:
- Electorate MPs are usually interested in what people from their electorate think about an issue.
- Cabinet Ministers are the decision-makers in the Government and have areas of responsibility (portfolios). So write to the Minister who best covers the issue you are concerned about.
- The Prime Minister (PM) is the leader of the Government. Write to the PM about big national and international issues.
The relevant contact details for these people can be found in various places.
- Your local electorate MPs contact details are available at: https://www.parliament.nz/en/mps-and-electorates/members-of-parliament/ .
- Cabinet Ministers, their portfolios and contact details are available at: https://www.beehive.govt.nz/ministers. You can email MPs.
- You can write to any MP, Minister or the Prime Minister for FREE at:
PO Box 18888
Some important things to remember when writing to politicians include:
- explain why a particular issue is important to you and your community or New Zealanders as a whole
- don't assume that the politician will already know everything
- be clear and to-the-point
- be constructive
- always use facts
- make sure that you state your name and address, so that they can write back to you.