Civic Engagement

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Civic engagement (participation in public decision-making) gives people a way of contributing to their communities, which is an important aspect of wellbeing. Civic engagement can also reflect a sense of being valued by community leaders and others in the community [1]. Electoral participation is the most well-established measure of civic engagement and the feeling that one has a moral obligation to vote (civic duty) has been shown to be the most powerful driver of engagement [2]. Civic duty is associated with citizens’ confidence in their ability to influence local and national decision making, including their trust in the political process [3]. If people believe strongly in their ability to be heard and to make a difference, they are more likely to enrol and vote in elections [4]. Participation in public decision-making offers people a way to engage with, and contribute to, their communities [3,5,6].

Key trends within civic engagement

Local trends in civic engagement should be considered within the context of the general decline in voter engagement across western democracies [6]. In the last 30 years, voter turnout in New Zealand has fallen from a high of 89 percent in the 1984 general election to a low of 70 percent in 2011 [7]. Greater Christchurch citizens’ (New Zealand citizens or permanent residents) engagement with central government elections has generally followed this national pattern. Similar to general elections, there has also been a gradual decline in voter turnout for local government elections (now typically ≈40%) [7]. Along with declining turnout over the last three or more decades, this period has also shown declining levels of trust in political institutions, and in the political system; an important driver of ‘civic duty’ [7,8].

However, there is some variation in turnout in greater Christchurch, such as improved turnout in the 2010 local government elections. This increase in local voting in greater Christchurch has been partly attributed to the 2010 Canterbury earthquakes. Higher engagement for greater Christchurch residents was also apparent in the 2020 General Election: 86 percent of enrolled electors in greater Christchurch voted in 2020 compared with 82 percent across New Zealand as a whole (compared with the ≈65 percent OECD average in this period) [9].

Greater Christchurch residents appear relatively well engaged with the democratic processes of central and local government. However, the majority of residents appear to be less than satisfied with their level of influence on government agencies’ actions (decreasing statistically significantly in 2022).

Key equity issues within civic engagement

Although turnout for Māori electors increased between the 2014 and 2020 general elections, turnout rates for Māori are still lower than for non-Māori electors. In terms of citizens’ sense of being able to influence the actions of central and local government agencies, there is no difference between Māori and European respondents to the Canterbury Wellbeing Survey in 2022. The proportion of Asian/Pacific/Indian respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing that they are able to have enough say in central and local government actions is statistically significantly higher than the proportion of European and Māori respondents in 2022.

What this means for wellbeing

There was a noticeable increase in civic engagement in greater Christchurch (above New Zealand levels) post- earthquakes. This suggests changes in attitudes, knowledge, awareness, political emotion and involvement in the post-earthquake context. Similarly, it is possible that the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts contributed to an increase in civic engagement in the 2020 general election.


  1. Community and Public Health (2011) Christchurch city health profile: democratic participation. Christchurch: Canterbury District Health Board.
  2. Blais A, Young R, Lapp M (2003) The calculus of voting: An empirical test. European Journal of Political Research 37: 181-201.
  3. Dalton RJ (2013) Citizen Politics: Public Opinion and Political Parties in Advanced Industrial Democracies. Washington DC: Congressional Quarterly Press.
  4. Niemi RG, Craig SC, Mattei F (1991) Measuring Internal Political Efficacy in the 1988 National Election Study. The American Political Science Review 85: 1407-1413.
  5. Robert Putnam (1993) Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  6. Solijonov A (2016) Voter Turnout Trends around the World. Stockholm, Sweden: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
  7. Department of Internal Affairs (2016) The Social Report 2016: Te pūrongo oranga tangata. Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs.
  8. Robert Putnam (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community New York: Simon and Schuster.
  9. OECD (2019) Voting, in Society at a Glance 2019: OECD Social Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris.
  10. Electoral Commission (2021) Report of the Electoral Commission on the 2020  General Election and referendums: Provided in accordance with section 8(1) of the Electoral Act 1993. Wellington: Ministry of Justice.
  11. NZ Electorate Boundary Review (2020) Report of the Representation Commission 2020. Wellington.