Not too taxing for citizens, too much for Tax Working Group

Imagine an online discussion about tax that was open to the public and hosted on a news website. What would it be like?

I see something barking, almost rabid, … there’d be those who see government as bad, tax as theft from the successful. And there’d be others with a diametrically opposed view — governments as a force for good needing tax to provide vital services for a fair and just society. And there wouldn’t be much in between … why would anyone put themselves in the firing line? No wonder news organisations are shutting down their comment sections!

Believe it or not, it doesn’t need to be this way and I’m going to describe a real and very different experience as part of this PEPtalk. But first, I want to reflect on how crazy it is that, here in New Zealand, so little effort is being put into upgrading the public infrastructures that enable us citizens to discuss public issues.

Continuing with tax, it’s something few of us can escape, it affects us all, and it affects us in different ways depending on our circumstances. It is therefore an issue that we as a people should be able to discuss as part of any review.

In November 2017, the Government published its Terms of Reference (ToR) for a Tax Working Group (TWG) to review the tax system. The ToR tell the TWG that it “will be expected to engage with the public in developing its recommendations.” “Will be expected” is rather weak, isn’t it, for an issue as important as tax? It’s no surprise, then, that the TWG seems only to have weakly engaged the public.

If I’d asked you to guess what the TWG would do to engage the public, I’m sure you’d get it right. That’s it — written submissions. No matter the website, the relatively generous time to respond, at least by government standards (2 months), the discussion document, the short videos and fact sheets, the expensive online advertising campaign, who actually writes submissions? Probably not the low- and middle-income earners who have, arguably, been most disadvantaged by changes to the tax regime over the last 30 years. And focus of the TWG’s review is fairness!

But written submissions also fall well short of what needed in terms of creating a space for citizens to explore and discuss issues from different perspectives, and to develop a shared sense of what a fair and just tax system would look like. A submitter doesn’t get to talk with the other submitters. The process holds them apart; it doesn’t invite them to listen to each other and see if they can collectively work things out. If submitters do engage with each other, it’s often via the media and, all too predictably, that tends to be as adversial as the image of the online discussion sketched above.

We need to do better, can do better and, if you follow the link below, you’ll be able to find out how, with a budget of zero, PEP and Scoop Independent News provided New Zealanders with another way to take part in the tax review not as individuals but in online discussion with a diverse group of fellow citizens.

What made the online Tax HiveMind discussion different?

Firstly, the public nature of the challenge was made clear and citizens were actually invited in, not as individuals but as a public. The title was: Fair enough? How should New Zealanders be tax? The first sentence was: “Scoop and PEP invite you to share your issues, ideas and perspectives on the NZ tax system with other New Zealanders …”

The HiveMind approach, which is powered by the interactive survey technology called Pol.is, gave participants a small set of reasonably straightforward activities to do. It’s relatively easy to read a short statement and cast a ‘vote’ to agree, disagree or pass on it. It’s not that hard to write a short proposal — less than 140 characters — for other participants to vote in on if you can respond to what other participants are saying. And, yes, Pol.is provides that information in real-time: it shows participants what the main clusters of opinion are, the areas of difference and commonality across them and, by analysing your votes, where your views sit relative to everyone else’s.

Writing a short proposal is harder than voting on someone else’s but both writing a short proposal and voting are easier than starting from a blank page and writing a formal letter or submission from scratch.

In addition to these tasks, participants were also explicitly asked to do a few other things including encouraging other people to take part and returning to the HiveMind every few days to review emerging patterns, vote of new statements and to add their own ideas for others to vote on.

So this isn’t a static thing, it’s dynamic, and, while the initial statements are ‘seeded’ by the organisers, participants have the power to reshape the discussion according to their own values, interests and ideas and in respond to other citizens. This promotes reflection, learning, creativity and a sense of agency. We desperately need our policy and decision-making institutions to deliver more of these public goods. How else are we going to find acceptable ways to address challenges as diverse as climate change, child poverty, pollution and over-consumption that won’t be overturned when the government changes colour?

Our vote of thanks

Finally, PEP and Scoop would like to sincerely thank the 335 people who took the plunge and gave the Tax HiveMind a go. We hope you agree with us that our experiment in digital public engagement and in a public-interest media created some new and useful insight about how New Zealanders view the tax system as it currently is and how it might need to change in the future, as well as how we might work together though other public issues. We’d welcome any feedback you would like to offer, including on the Tax HiveMind process and the submission we sent to the Tax Working Group.


Originally published at PEP.