Big rocks and social investment

There is so much we do not know about the way the government’s public service targets might be achieved it is hard to match Prime Minister Christopher Luxon’s enthusiasm for them.

The nine "big rocks" that matter most to New Zealanders, according to the PM, are in the government targets he announced this week. For those finding it hard to keep up with Mr Luxon’s lingo, a Google search reveals a rock is merely a business goal and big rocks are more important ones you want to sort out in the next quarter.

Mr Luxon is not expecting to sort out his big rocks that quickly, rather expecting them to be delivered by 2030.

They cover shorter stays in emergency departments, wait times for elective treatments, reducing child and youth offending and violent crime, having fewer people on the jobseeker support benefit, increasing school attendance, raising the achievement of pupils by year 8, a 75% reduction in people receiving emergency housing and reducing net greenhouse gas emissions.

The fact sheets with these targets show how they are going to be tracked but as yet we have little detail about how they will be achieved.

Since Mr Luxon loves to use terms applicable to business, no matter how baffling they might be to the rest of us, we trust he is familiar with the adage that weighing the pig does not make it fatter.

As we have said before, is there a risk some public servants will be so obsessed with ensuring the figures for these targets look good other important work will go by the wayside?

While Mr Luxon appears to be aware of the risk of gaming targets, it is less clear how that is going to be avoided. Regular meetings with the relevant ministers and chief executives where they will be grilled about what is being achieved will not be a cure-all.

When making the targets announcement Mr Luxon told us he wants "social investment in the bloodstream of how we do things in government".

He acknowledged there was some work to move that from theory into action.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon. PHOTO: MEAD NORTON
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon. PHOTO: MEAD NORTON
How well the wider public understands what might be meant by social investment is anyone’s guess even though the term has been bandied about since the days of former National leader Bill English. Nicola Willis is the minister for social investment. She has described it as about "using data, evidence, and modern analytics to invest in earlier and better intervention that can effectively break cycles of disadvantage, dependence and despair. It’s about moving beyond good intentions towards hard evidence about what works. Improving these people’s lives is not only a sign of a decent country, but also a recipe for safer communities and a stronger economy".

She will be leading work to ensure all government investment decisions can be informed by better data, evidence and impact and analysis.

With many supposedly back-room public servants about to lose their jobs we wonder how well that might go, particularly with regard to ensuring data accuracy and proper understanding of the limits to the way data should be used.

Both she and Mr Luxon have talked about being prepared to stop well-intentioned programmes which are not working (what he calls the dumb stuff) and putting power in the hands of community agencies where government agencies may have failed.

It might be easy to make superficial gains in a short time, but will there be funding and support for those community organisations tackling complex problems which by their very nature cannot be solved quickly?

There will be concerns this approach may be just a way of cost-cutting and placing too much emphasis on the individual without properly addressing the big things which would help everyone, including access to affordable housing, healthcare and well-paid and secure jobs.

If social investment is going to be underpinning all social policy, as the PM says, then we must be told clearly how it will work.