Despite Auckland Council and a number of other organisations’ best efforts, Auckland’s youth remain, for the most part, uninterested and unengaged in local politics. Irra Lee asks why.
Auckland Council spent $1.2 million on a campaign to increase voter turnout during the 2016 local body elections. The investment resulted in just a 3.6% increase to a 38.5% voter turnout. And the demographic data doesn’t paint the best picture either.
Youth (under-25s), ethnic communities, and new migrants were the groups identified as most underrepresented in voting statistics, and the primary targets of the Council’s Show Your Love campaign. These groups also remain underrepresented in feedback channels such as Auckland Council’s email-based survey platform, The People’s Panel. Only 2% of its respondents were below 25, despite nearly 20% of Aucklanders fitting this demographic.
In 2019, we (Auckland) get to decide if our Mayor Phil Goff, councillors, and local board members get to keep their jobs. But will we (young Aucklanders) even turn out to vote?
By youth civic engagement, I don’t just mean voting. Engagement comes in many forms—volunteering, being part of community groups, and generally knowing what’s going on in your area. But, it’s the absence of young people’s voices in official channels such as voting and providing feedback to Council that are salient in the statistics. Take, for example, a recent change in your bus routes. Were you able to have your say when the change was first being proposed?
Over the past two years, I’ve been fortunate enough to volunteer in initiatives trying to turn those statistics around and raise youth engagement. But it’s been two years, and I wonder how much has changed. It’s not that I expected a revolution by any means, especially in such a short timeframe. I have, however, begun to question the impact I, and the people I’m fortunate enough to work with, are having in the grand scheme of things. I have started to question why we’re having the same conversations we were having two years ago; why are we still talking about youth engagement?
“We’re not learning quick enough.”
Manurewa Local Board member Sarah Colcord is the youngest elected local board member in Auckland, elected two years ago at the age of 20.
The challenge, she says, is we don’t stay young forever. “We're not learning quick enough. Just as we think we’ve figured it out, we need to change how we engage again because every generation engages and responds differently.”
Sarah says it’s often easier to engage with older groups because best practices around hearing their opinions are already established, whereas this is more difficult with younger people.
“It’s about going to where youth are.”
Even young people who are tasked with trying to engage their peers on behalf of the Council, within initiatives such as youth advisory panels and youth boards, find it challenging.
Auckland Youth Advisory Panel chairperson Veisinia Maka and deputy chairperson Damian Piilua say the topic of youth engagement is a worthwhile conversation to keep having.
There’s a fine line, Veisinia says, between youth engagement not being done well and not being done at all. The panel members who advise the Council on ways to best engage with young people and highlight issues significant to the group, say there’s a disconnect between the decisions made in Council, and people realising its everyday impact. They believe this disconnect contributes to the apathy young people sometimes feel towards local government.
“We really want to set an example to Auckland Council. How we engage with young people and the events that we run—that’s what we want Council to do.” Veisinia says.
As well as advising Council, the panel takes active steps in identifying effective ways to get youth involved within their communities. It’s a reason why the panel takes its face-to-face and online engagement activities so seriously. “It’s about going to where young people are because you can’t expect them to come to you,” says Damian. Part of setting an example to Auckland Council, he says, is removing barriers for youth by simplifying Council-speak.
In reality, Veisinia says, most people don’t have time to trawl through 60-page Council documents. Simplifying documents allows people to gain a better understanding of what the Council actually gets up to.
“The last time I had any sort of civics education was in Year Nine."
Howick in East Auckland is home to one of the city’s largest youth populations. Zac Wong, chairperson of the Howick Youth Council, says a lack of civics knowledge is a barrier to youth engagement and involvement with local government. “The last time I had any sort of civics education was in Year Nine. We might’ve looked at the different types of government and the party system briefly. But that was the extent of it.“Schools may want to be non-political, but the thing is, we probably need to be getting students engaged right from school if we want them to have a voice as citizens.”
As with the Youth Advisory Panel, Zac says the idea is to make Council documents relevant and to meet youth where they are. “We’ve got to facilitate ideas and conversations, especially for those who have little experience with politics and people who are just completely disinterested.”
Part of the facilitation process, he says, is transforming informal comments from youth around what they want to see in the community into formal documents recognised by local board and Council. “If the answer to how to get people interested was easy, we wouldn’t have engagement problems. But we do. So, we’ve got to try things, and talk about issues that matter to people.”
“It’s about making an effort.”
“The Howick Youth Council’s been doing a lot of social media because that’s a medium that helps us raise engagement,” Zac says. They’ve found success in delivering content in easy-to-understand, bite-sized pieces using a combination of videos, photos and Facebook Live.
However, social media can’t replace face-to-face interaction, Zac says. “The problem with social media is only a certain number of people see it. You actually have to go to youth groups and communities to get engagement back.”
The Youth Advisory Panel uses social media to keep themselves accountable to the young people they represent. It’s important, Damian says, they remember they speak to Auckland Council first and foremost as members of their communities. “What we’ve tried to do is have transparent conversations with as many people as we can engage with. That’s why we’ve been adamant on posting [on social media] constantly, and getting things out, so that people know who we are.”
Sarah says the first step to meaningful engagement is understanding there are many complex layers within the issue of youth engagement. “For example, our minorities and ethnic communities are underrepresented. It’s even worse in the youth engagement space because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to engage.
”That’s why, Sarah says, it’s about authenticity, intention, and appropriateness when it comes to listening to what youth want. It’s about starting a conversation, and also understanding that no one has all the answers.
“Sometimes you’ll fail, but it’s about making an effort.”