Civic Lab Report

A Harvest from An application of tech-sector skills & tools in Wellington City Council


Who and Why?

We’re Gabrielle and Pete. We’re Web Developers. Code for Aotearoa created the opportunity for us to work with Wellington City Council for three months.

Code for Aotearoa opens new ways for citizens to meaningfully contribute to public sector organisations. Tech professionals are welcomed into public sector organisations, where they share their tech sector tools and best practices to help build new solutions.


Joining the Council

We aimed to get a diverse range of perspectives of the organisation in order to understand its needs. In our first month, we talked with many staff across council and hosted a public engagement event.

We began by introducing ourselves to Council Officers to build trust and respect for Code for Aotearoa. We raised our profile in the council organisation by:

  • Setting up a Code for Aotearoa website,

  • Introducing ourselves and directing people to the website on posters, put up in each staff kitchen,

  • Posting a description of Code for Aotearoa and a photo of us with the Head of Innovation in the CEO’s office on the staff intranet,

  • Being introduced to many staff by Innovation Officer’s,

  • Having cups of tea with people in staff kitchens,

The culmination of these efforts meant that we became recognised and accepted within the organisation.


Discovering where we could add the most value

We discovered problems and ideas in three ways:

  1. We scheduled meetings with council staff. To get the most value out of each meeting, we prepared questions, and summarised what we discovered afterwards using a template - This created a network of people across teams that supported our work. Through these meetings we heard a repetition of themes about how council could be improved, as well as ideas for specific projects.

  2. To hear the voices of people we did not have time to meet with, we set up  post it note stations in staff rooms, asking people to write their responses to:
    1. “What is council doing really well?”
    2. “What does council most need to improve?”
    3. “What is your vision for council?”

   3. We ran a public engagement asking people what they thought/knew of the council


Through these three methods, we discovered and logged 36 problems and opportunities.

Two significant problems we decided to focus on were:

  1. The majority of citizens don’t understand how the council works. Therefore they miss out on engaging on topics that they care about. This means that the council can’t provide the best services as they’re not getting input from users.

  2. The internal silos that still exist within council reduce efficiency and result in some missed opportunities.

We felt that these problems came from a lack of good quality feedback.


We ran a focus group to select a project to address these problems. Read more about the selection process at:


Our Project: The Civic Lab

We wanted to experiment with a new kind of space for feedback that went to the people, rather than asking the people to find it. The space would be friendly and fun, and staff from across council could be involved in it. We would ensure the results were heard from the top level of Council. We called it the Civic Lab. We ran it five times.

The Civic Lab was a space for public engagement in the Central Library foyer. We attracted people by making the space interesting and playful with fake grass and fruit, then asked them questions.

The questions we settled on were: “What makes a successful city?” with the sub-question “How can the council help?”

We asked people to write their responses on post-it notes on the wall. Half way through we introduced an upvoting system, where people could tick the post-it notes that they resonated with.

We collected demographic data from participants and asked them to rate the Civic Lab out of five.

On the final two days we also asked for contact details.



Over five lunchtimes, over 208 people responded to the Civic Lab at a rate of one person every three minutes.

The Civic Lab engaged a diverse range of people. Younger citizens aged 18-30 were particularly engaged.


We also engaged disengaged people - 40% of Civic Lab participants didn’t vote.

People saw value in the lab. On average, the Civic Lab was rated 4.1 out of 5 on a scale of awful to awesome. We received verbal praise and emails for running the Civic Lab.

“keep up your resilience and positivity knowing this is a really important project. I hope you can run it for an long as possible to gain as many views from Wellingtonians as is possible” - Email from Lab participant.

“People like you make the city enjoyable. People!” - Civic Lab post-it note

“great job, accessible and open. Ta!” - Civic Lab post-it note

All 696 responses are available at:

Here are some examples from the top 3 themes. More photos available at:


Below are the responses grouped by themes.



Our interpretation of the results

These are beautiful messages.

Consider what isn’t ranking highly. Rates, rubbish collection - things that are a common perception of citizen engagement with their council and their city.

This data shows by the numbers that when you ask people good high level questions, you get intelligent high level responses.

Citizens are not apathetic, they just don’t have accessible channels to engage with the council.

People took the time to engage with council when it was fun, friendly, quick and where they were. We had countless amazing conversations with people. We sparked civics conversations between parents and children. Participants started talking to each other. People took time to read each other’s ideas.

People were overwhelmingly pleasant and constructive to talk to. It broke every stereotype of the apathetic citizen. Hosting the Civic Lab gave us more faith in the people of Wellington and stronger connections to Wellington communities.


Why the Civic Lab is valuable to the Council

Value of data for Council

We engaged a large age range, with a spike in the age range council normally has difficulty engaging with.

Our sample, though small, highlighted some key areas the public really care about. These concerns and values should be part of the decision making around project choice and design.

Asking these big questions of Wellington citizens is an important step to understanding the users of the council, so that the council can effectively direct their resources to providing the services the users really need - rather than doing what they assume is needed.


Value of our approach for Council

We’ve shown that you can discover a lot of valuable information on a shoestring budget if you are able to be creative, have agency and fail. We did keep the risk low by starting with quick, cheap prototypes to test the idea meets a real need.


Elements that made the Civic Lab successful

Iterative question design

Surprisingly, it turned out that the design of the questions was the most important element of the lab.

To get great responses required a great question. We didn’t expect to get this question right from the start. We started by testing a big range of questions to get people to reflect on the council.


Did you vote? Why? Why not?

How long have you been in Wellington?

What do you think about the council?

Did you know the council spends half a billion a year?

What does a successful council look like to you?


The way we phrased the question produced dramatically different responses.

What can the council do to help? - “new pedestrian crossing through thorndon quay near bus stop under the motorway”

What do you think about the council? “No Hotel on MFC CarPark!”

Mentioning the word council in the question seemed to limit people’s responses to smaller issues. This matches our general observations that people seem to have little understanding of the role of the council in their city. The most successful one was a big picture question about something people are familiar with.


With trial, error, feedback and ideas from participants the main question evolved into:

“What makes a successful city?”

To which people made responses such as:

  • Successful city is inclusive and fun

  • More maker spaces - “physical locations where people gather to share resources and knowledge, work on projects, network, and build” -

  • Keep the elderly active with training in technology and community purpose

  • Freedom of expression without fear of persecution from others


With a sub-question:

“How can the council help?”

To which people made responses such as:

  • Democratic process. Make people feel involved

  • Continuous consultation. Nominate a councillor for age groups

  • Listen early

  • Want passionate people who want to change the world in council


A suggestion from a Code for Aotearoa community event participant was that citizens could co-design the questions asked in the Civic Lab. With more time this would be interesting to explore.


No assumptions

At one point, using new online consultation tool we were asking the question:

“How could the council best communicate with you and listen to you?”  

We dreamed up a list of 20 things for people to upvote using a - facebook, text, email, website etc. However, we decided not to seed any responses, and waited to see what people came up with.

The very first response was one we never would have thought of - “I want email for this, text for that, website for the other” and took the discussion on a really interesting path. This made us realise that the way we were hosting the question with Polis was unhelpfully narrowing of peoples ideas and input.

By treating the public as intelligent people, who have valuable creative ideas, and designing questions and modes of interaction (post-its, ticks, online consultation tools) accordingly, we got the most valuable, genuine opinions and ideas.


This approach of creating space for intelligent, subtle response and discussion should be considered when designing the engagement process. For example multi-checkboxes which limit the discussion and creativity of people could be avoiding using new web technology such as


Willingness to experiment

We knew there was a problem:

The majority of citizens don’t understand how the council works.

Therefore they miss out on engaging on topics that they care about.

This means that the council can’t provide the best services, as they’re not getting input from users.

To solve a complex problem requires trying different solutions to address it - it is likely there will not be a single solution.

This experiment was to try and find another useful tool for addressing this problem and learn more about the problem.

Although we had a good hunch that the public would respond well to this big question cardboard box Civic Lab, we had no idea until we tried. From the beginning, we viewed the project as an experiment. Whatever the response to the Civic Lab was, we could learn more about how citizens like to be engaged with and what they understood of the council.

We did not decide to do this and keep going no matter what. We were ready to gracefully close the project at any stage if it wasn’t valuable. It would be easy to change tack because we kept the project low risk by keeping the budget small and low investment in long term planning until we had results.


Minimum Viable Product - MVP

An MVP means building only the most essential features required for the product to be usable.

For example, rather than the library building a designated space for the civic lab with interactive touch screens and employing staff to run it full time.

we set up a space with cardboard boxes and permanent markers over lunchtimes. We packed it away each day.

“The best way to build good services is to start small and iterate wildly. Release Minimum Viable Products early, test them with actual users, move from Alpha to Beta to Live adding features, deleting things that don’t work and making refinements based on feedback. Iteration reduces risk. It makes big failures unlikely and turns small failures into lessons. If a prototype isn’t working, don’t be afraid to scrap it and start again.” - From the UK Government Digital Service Design Principles:

The first Civic Lab was an MVP that was iterated and improved upon as we put what we learnt into action.


Our listening skills - people like being listened to

People know when they are being genuinely listened to.

Our project was so engaging because we were genuinely listening and considering people’s opinions. Even when people were telling us things we knew weren’t true about the council, we would genuinely hear them out and share what we knew about the council, rather than dismissing them. We found it valuable to deeply listen to everyone, to understand why they have the ideas and opinions they do. This insight from understanding a wide range of people’s viewpoints helped shape the lab, and is part of the reason we had such high ratings for the project 4.1 out of 5 stars from awful to awesome, got so many ideas and attracted such diversity of people.


Accessible to all ages, educations, disabilities

The design of the City Lab was intentionally accessible to people of all ages. Participants ranged in age from three to 84 years old. The City Lab was particularly popular with 18-24 year olds. THe question was designed to be accessible to everyone - many wellingtonians aren’t familiar with rates, but everyone can talk about their city.

The biggest barrier to lab participation was english literacy. We overcame this as much as possible by using simple language and recording ideas when people preferred to give spoken responses. We took time to explain the project and questions to people who didn’t speak much english. These people often told us what a great place New Zealand was to live, as well as giving international perspective on what makes a successful city.

We provided activities for children, so that caregivers would have time to engage.

We made an effort to be inclusive of marginalised groups. We talked to a person with mental disabilities, a deaf woman and a woman in a mobility scooter. We didn’t make assumptions, we treated every citizen equally.


Being in the library

The Wellington Central Library Foyer has a huge number and diversity of people passing through it. People pass through the foyer to visit the library, the cafe, Citizens Advice Bureau and for access to Civic Square.

The Central Library staff successfully promote the library as a vibrant, diverse community space. This is a great space for diverse community engagement.


Space design

To make the space widely accessible and relatable, the Civic Lab had a rough edges, under-construction aesthetic created with cardboard boxes drawn on by vivids.

An eye catching fact, the total council expenditure of $440,574,000 was displayed clearly to interest people. The digits were cut out of cardboard using big printed letter templates from an attractive font. The effect was easy and enjoyable to read and a little playful.

Soft, colourful blankets made the space comfortable and friendly.

Fake grass, a “Data Tree”, a sock puppet, bubbles and brightly coloured post-it notes made the space playful.

A reflective backwater space was created between the cardboard box tables and the wall. We kept two access ways to the reflective backwater space clear so people didn’t feel trapped, and so it was easy to approach without committing to entering a space.

We played ukulele occasionally, to make the space more enjoyable and attractive to spend time in, and to help create a reflective atmosphere.


Resources we’ve learnt from and find useful



This is building on a lot of great work already done. Great people at council made it possible for us to do this in only three months. We’d like to thank everyone who has supported us, the Code for Aotearoa initiative and this Civic Lab Project.