Published On: October 31, 2023

In this article, NPC News Editor Stephanie Buller explores what the New Zealand Government has been doing to enhance public engagement in national security matters. The article discusses New Zealand’s approach to enhancing public engagement, emphasising the need for an open and public conversation surrounding national security. It explores how New Zealand’s strategies can serve as valuable lessons in promoting a more inclusive and participatory approach to safeguarding a nation’s security.

New Zealand (Aotearoa) is the sixth-largest island country in the world but has a sparse population of approximately 5.12 million. It is a developed, democratic, commonwealth nation in the South Pacific Ocean, comprising two main islands and approximately 600 smaller islands spread over hundreds of miles.

New Zealand has a modern European-style culture combining rich Māori traditions and customs. Post-colonial cultural revival has seen a renaissance in Māori influences, establishing a solid national identity and civic pride. New Zealand’s environmental assets and beauty are revered both nationally and internationally; and there is a strong culture of environmentalism and conservation. Political and economic stability provides a safe environment for investors and businesses, with New Zealand consistently ranking highly internationally for its governmental transparency, high literacy, high-quality healthcare, and low levels of crime and corruption.

In recent years – and partly in response to the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCOI) report into the terrorist attack on Christchurch Masjidain – New Zealand has revised its approach to national security to include the public in the conversation, to foster a more open and transparent culture of national risk management.

What has changed?

In March 2016, findings from the First Independent Review of Intelligence and Security in New Zealand recommended significant changes to National Security and Oversight legislation. The government accepted most recommendations, resulting in a new Intelligence and Security Act (2017), with a review of the act required by law every five to seven years. At the time, it represented the most significant reform of the intelligence agencies in New Zealand’s history, pulling four former pieces of legislation into one legislative framework. Under the 2017 Act, the New Zealand Government committed to developing a public-facing National Risk Report from the classified national risk register to communicate risk with the public. This was drafted in 2018 but not signed off and published until 2022 following a request under the Official Information Act 1982.

Despite the 2017 reforms to national security, a terrorist attack on Christchurch Masjidain in 2019, left the country in shock. In response, the government launched an independent inquiry into the attack. The report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCOI) into the terrorist attack on Christchurch Masjidain was released in December 2020, just one year after the attack. A key conclusion from the RCOI Report was that, as New Zealand’s society becomes increasingly diverse, greater public engagement is required in national security issues. As such, the public sector has to value communities’ input into decisions, as well as the need for transparency, and engaging in robust debate.

A key supporting recommendation for this was to ensure public engagement. The New Zealand Government accepted all 44 recommendations, committing to further national security reform, developing a new national security strategy, reviewing the Intelligence and Security Act (2017) ahead of the legislated schedule, and increasing efforts to engage New Zealand’s diverse population.

The government continues to drive change and maintain public accountability through an online progress tracker and newsletter, providing updates on the obligations and how the government and stakeholders are working with communities and groups to achieve the recommendations. To support driving change, the government set up the Kāpuia, the Ministerial Advisory Group.

“Ki te Kotahi te kākaho ka whati, ki te kāpuia e kore e whati.” This whakataukī means if there is only one reed, it breaks easily, but gather many together; they will not break.

This proverb sets the direction of the Kāpuia Ministerial Advisory Group, grounded in the understanding that the reeds reflect the many cultures within New Zealand’s society. When they come together, they are stronger and cannot be broken.

Building trust in the whole of society

Chapter 5 of the RCOI makes several recommendations to improve social cohesion and New Zealand’s engagement with its increasingly diverse population. This includes a comprehensive government approach to fostering social cohesion and social inclusion, including options for a new agency focusing on ethnic communities and multiculturalism, and creating appropriate measures and indicators to track policy effectiveness. The report recommends increased diversity in leadership roles within public sector agencies involved in counter-terrorism. The recommendations also recognise the role of public education in understanding diversity, enhancing social cohesion, educating the public on risk, and identifying the part that young people have in disseminating information to members of their family and local community to influence a behaviour change; citing examples on plastic usage and climate change.

The RCOI report was not the only stimulus for improved public engagement. Long-term Insights Briefings became a requirement under the Public Service Act 2020, designed to give long-term independent advice to successive governments, protecting the political neutrality and quality of public services in New Zealand. The first insight briefing produced by the Te Kawa Mataaho Public Service Commission in 2022 was titled “Enabling Active Citizenship: Public Participation in Government Into The Future and emphasised that participation can help build trust, improve public services and provide new means to address complex issues inclusively.

Since the terror attack on Christchurch, New Zealand has increasingly understood its vulnerability within the modern global risk landscape and evolving national security threats; no longer regarding itself as remote and isolated from such risks. The briefing recognises the importance of trust in addressing such complex problems as cyber security and disinformation. It also emphasises the impact that any erosion of trust might have on the ability of the nation to respond to such threats. The briefing also notes that most public engagement has traditionally been characterised by consultation as opposed to involvement or collaboration, which the government seeks to remedy over the longer term.

The public engagement and participation findings above were echoed in the Review of the Intelligence and Security Act (2017), which was brought forward to 2022 in order to consider the recommendations made by the RCOI as part of its regular review. Published in 2023, the Review concluded the Act remained fit for purpose, but recommended some significant changes. On matters of public engagement, the review questioned whether the Act and the agencies adequately reflect New Zealand’s diverse and multicultural society, finding that:

  • Community distrust arose from previous lived experience and engagement misalignment: communities provide and share information, but engagement is one way, lacking a genuine dialogue between the community and agencies.
  • Trust is essential to open and constructive discussion on national security matters. However, there is a lack of trust in agencies, primarily due to their reluctance to share information about their work and activities.
  • Lack of diversity within the agencies and diversity in views reinforces ‘group think’ and unacknowledged biases in agency decision-making.

These findings have laid the groundwork for a truly ‘whole of society’ approach towards participation in national security in New Zealand.

Public engagement in national security today

Engagement with the public has formed a cornerstone of New Zealand’s approach to national security, demonstrated by the development process for key policy documents.

In 2021, the Te Kawa Mataaho Public Service Commission began consulting on a long-term national security insight briefing. This started with consultation on the proposed briefing topic: Engaging an increasingly diverse Aotearoa, New Zealand, on national security risks, challenges and opportunities.

Public consultation on the briefing was central to its development from the outset. It used a mixed-method iterative engagement approach and received 105 submissions from the public, and organisations and businesses expressing their views on the topic. Focused engagement with stakeholders from different sectors and diverse groups followed, and a National Security public survey provided a representative sample of views. Four focus discussions with ethnic and faith-based communities completed the intelligence-gathering. A consultation on the final draft briefing received 45 submissions from a cross-section of individuals, businesses, academics, and community organisations, including ethnic and faith-based organisations.

Overall, the submissions supported engagement with comments on the need to consider various national security risks and challenges and take a transparent, accessible approach to communicating with the public. One participant remarked that ‘an informed public is a resilient public’ calling for greater information sharing and education. Respondents also called for a collaborative approach to conversations on national security, in which the public could decide on the national security priorities and focus. The briefing has since been amended to clarify the views of the national security professionals, alongside those of the public, throughout the briefing.

The National Security Survey

DPMC commissioned an independent Ipsos Survey (an online survey of approximately 1,000 individuals)

In 2022, the first National Security Survey was conducted, designed to explore what national security means to people living in New Zealand, which threats are of most concern to them, and how to improve information sharing and engagement on national security topics.

Against a background of the Omicron Covid-19 wave, associated socio-economic tensions, the start of the war in Ukraine, and increasing misinformation, the findings made interesting reading. The public in New Zealand were found to trust the government to manage risk from natural disasters and terrorism but not risks associated with misinformation, CBRN attacks, hacking, and violent conflict. Respondents placed a high value on trust built through quick responses, preparedness, education, and communication. When asked to rank the most significant threats in the next 12 months, natural disasters and misinformation topped the list, followed by hacking, health epidemics, and organised crime. Encouragingly, given New Zealand’s move towards a ‘whole of society’ approach, respondents believed that individuals, businesses, and organisations all have a role in protecting against or managing these threats but that they have fewer resources than government to do so. Only 20% felt enough information was shared on national security, , over half were interested to know more, and nearly 40% would like to be involved in public discussion on national security.

The second annual survey in 2023, saw more than twice as many responses, totalling a nationally representative sample of 2,370 people across New Zealand. Launched in the middle of Cyclone Gabrielle, global inflation, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War, a rise in international digital crime, and a rise in use of artificial intelligence, it is interesting that the perception of risk did not change significantly. Natural disasters were still ranked as the top threat to national security, with the public believing a disaster was likely to occur within the following year. International Organised Crime was ranked second, followed by hacking and disinformation, with CBRN attacks in fourth place. Most respondents felt that the world had become more dangerous. Over one-third of respondents said that the government agencies still did not share enough information on national security, with over half wanting to know more and over one-third wanting greater involvement in national security matters.

Developing a new national security strategy

The RCOI Report challenged the New Zealand Government to start a conversation with New Zealanders on national security risks and to develop an approach centred on prevention, preparedness and participation. Accordingly, the findings from the national security surveys have been used to inform the development of a new National Security Strategy.

Public engagement in developing the National Security Strategy took place from July-October 2022. Kōrero on the development of Aotearoa New Zealand’s first National Security Strategy

The key findings were that there was:

  • Public appetite for a conversation on national security.
  • Need for greater transparency and accountability.
  • direct relationship with the public through proactive, accessible engagement and communication.
  • Need for education for civic citizenship on personal resilience.

The Strategy’s Programme of Action describes how the government will advance these priorities over the next two years. It includes two significant initiatives: reforming the national security system and fostering a public conversation on national security, honouring the commitment to repeat the survey annually.

An interesting aspect of New Zealand’s move to include the public in the conversation on national security matters is the development of the 2023 National Security Intelligence Priorities (NSIPs). These have been communicated clearly and concisely to the public in a user-friendly, accessible manner with clear lines of ownership and accountability by means of a public-facing National Risk Register. Available from the online government web platform ‘New Zealand’s Nationally Significant Risks,’ the risks are presented in the following categories:

  • Natural hazards
  • Biological hazards
  • Technological hazards
  • Malicious threats
  • Economic crisis

Each risk is summarised with a definition, the name of the lead or coordinating agencies responsible for managing the risk, and details of where to access more information.

Continued transparency

Having successfully started the conversation, and paved the way for continued transparency and public engagement, the New Zealand Parliament released three seminal papers in August 2023:

1. The National Security Strategy (‘Secure Together’)

2. The Defence Policy and Strategy Statement

3. The Future Force design principles for the New Zealand Defence Force

Taken together, the publications represent a major shift from 2017, demonstrating an understanding that the international and international threat landscape has significantly changed – with direct implications for the safety and prosperity of New Zealand, and a need to respond to an increasingly disrupted and contested world.

‘Secure Together’ – New Zealand’s National Security Strategy 2023-2028 actively seeks to overcome public concern, raised in the National Security Survey, about a lack of communication surrounding the risks faced by New Zealanders, and what agencies are doing about them. As such it strives to lay out the threat landscape more clearly, through 12 core national security issues:

1. Strategic competition and the rules-based international system

2. Emerging, critical, and sensitive technologies

3. Disinformation

4. Foreign interference and espionage

5. Terrorism and violent extremism

6. Transnational organised crime

7. Economic Security

8. Pacific resilience and security

9. Maritime security

10. Border security

11. Cybersecurity

12. Space Security

The strategy is predicated on a whole of society approach, with everyone having a role to play in national security. The strategy commits to strengthening the national security community, taking a local-to-global approach with partners to address key national intelligence priorities, as illustrated below.

Based on the understanding that ‘a more informed society is a more resilient society,’ the main infographic on the strategy’s website landing page further reinforces the whole of society message.


It is clear that the national security culture in New Zealand has changed irrevocably since the 2019 terrorist attack on Christchurch Masjidain. A country that once considered itself remote and isolated from security risks suffered a tragedy that exposed its true position in the global risk landscape in an increasingly disruptive and contested world. However, through disaster has come change: a change in government approach and a changing culture of risk management regarding national security threats.

The New Zealand Government has listened to the public and continues to strive for high public trust. Moving from a position of no information sharing, with national risk reports having limited circulation,, to a new approach where there is an online risk register available for anyone to consult, a national strategy, and a published set of national intelligence priorities that have been formed directly with input from public engagement, with commitment to an ongoing conversation. The 2024 National Security Survey will offer an opportunity to assess the impact this engagement has had on public trust and confidence in national security matters.

Photo credit: Claudette Wicks/UnSplash

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