On tour in New Zealand talking public sector capability

During the week of Monday 20th June, Rob Sturrock (Policy Director) was in Wellington, New Zealand discussing the findings of Grand Alibis: How Declining Public Sector Capability Affects Services for the Disadvantaged, which he co-authored, and examining the Kiwis’ approach to the delivery of human services.

The Key Government, now in its third term, is reforming how it delivers services to its citizens. The centrepiece is its Better Public Service reforms – a list of 10 priority areas where the objective is to improve services to disadvantaged communities, tackling head on wicked social problems such as low skills, persistent unemployment and disease.

The government is also in the process of rolling out an ‘investment approach’ to social services. Using actuarial modelling the public sector identifies people most at risk of long term welfare dependency and disadvantage, and develops preventative strategies to deliver better targeted social programs. The implementation of these reforms has encouraged human service agencies to collaborate more, share data on their service users and look for more innovative ways to remedy persistent social problems in the community.

During his week, Rob met with the Deputy Prime Minister and long-serving Minister of Finance, the Hon Bill English MP, as well as several senior members of the Ministry of Social Development. He also met with representatives from the New Zealand Labor Party and the NZ Greens, as well as the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services.

Rob gave several presentations to different audiences in Wellington, including a public seminar at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at the Victoria University. Throughout the week he was generously hosted by Kirsten Windelov, Policy Officer at the New Zealand Public Services Association.

On 4 July, Rob was published in The Dominion Post, one of NZ’s main newspapers, outlining key observations from his trip, reproduced below:

Aussie looks across ditch for social policy ideas

In February Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would have eyed the latest guest at his Point Piper mansion, his New Zealand counterpart John Key, with envy.

Key heads a stable New Zealand Government actively redesigning social policy, tackling welfare dependency and reforming public institutions in the process.

At the Treasurer’s behest, the Australian Productivity Commission (APC) is now looking for ways to infuse market-based competition and contestability principles into government delivery of social services.

In an era of interconnected, globalised and complex policy challenges, inequality and disadvantage stalk many Australian communities.

Despite unprecedented economic prosperity, up to 1.5 million Australians experience entrenched disadvantage, and our child poverty rates are unchanged since the turn of the century. Entrenched service failures necessitate reform.

For the APC, the Key Government’s Better Public Services, and Social Investment Approach will be a compelling case study.

I came to Wellington on a fact- finding mission to better understand the Key Government reforms. It is refreshing to see an administration joining up government services for disadvantaged persons. Improved data infrastructure and exchange of data between agencies enables holistic service responses for New Zealand’s disadvantaged people.

In Australia, recent reviews, including a Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, heavily criticised data management practices of government agencies.

Yet the concept of setting numerical targets for tackling disadvantage is problematic. It can lead to unintended outcomes as agencies and providers ‘chase the numbers’ to achieve targets on paper that are not lasting solutions for service users.

In using an actuarial approach to draw boundaries around disadvantage, there is a risk that a government narrows the field to the point that people miss out on services, or that the government retreats from service delivery not considered in scope of the business case.

An holistic ‘return on investment’ (ROI) for social services could measure long- term economic and social wellbeing as well as long-term ‘welfare liability’ reduction.

Does the jobseeker have meaningful and stable employment prospects beyond the short term? Does the teenager with a newly obtained NCEA level 2 qualification now have a range of study or employment options open to them? An ROI approach can also empower the public sector to tackle root causes to major social problems.

For instance, treating rheumatic fever could include addressing damp housing situations as well as treating disease incidents via health services.

A major advantage of New Zealand’s reforms is that an iterative process of continuous learning has been created. As trials are expanded, measures can be adjusted.

Expect greater discussion in Australia about the applicability of ‘the New Zealand model’. One concern for me is that the Turnbull government has had a Reagan-esque belief that ‘government is the problem’. New Zealand’s public servants are the ones implementing the reforms.

In looking for ideas, Australia remains blind to the potential of an active, well-resourced and collaborative public sector in improving people’s lives. We must find the best service solution for citizens, be that in-house production, outsourced delivery or a hybrid of both options.

Otherwise we risk exacerbating the problems we’re trying to solve.