Blinkered thinking

It was an odd juxtaposition.

In the same week as the coalition government proudly announced its allocation of $24 million to the I am Hope/Gumboot Friday mental health charity, an alliance of mental health organisations was decrying the absence of mental health and addiction services as Budget priorities.

The funding to the Mike King-founded I am Hope organisation fulfils a commitment in the New Zealand First/National coalition agreement to fund the charity "to $6 million per annum".

This funding will be for four years.

Deputy Prime Minister and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, making the announcement with Mental Health Minister Matt Doocey, said it was part of the government’s focus on investing in frontline services that delivered real results.

The funding is expected to provide more than 15,000 people aged between 5 and 25 years with free mental health counselling each year.

Mr Peters returned to one of his favourite similes for the previous government, the eight-armed octopus. In this instance he said the coalition government would not be throwing money around like that creature into bloated ineffective bureaucracy.

Many will applaud that sentiment. There has been widespread concern much of the huge amount of money allocated to mental health by the previous government was ineffectual.

Further, in a report released earlier this year the Auditor-general found the mental health needs of many youths were not being met. Young people reported the highest level of unmet need for mental health care of any age group. They faced barriers when accessing services which were often not designed for their needs.

But while better services for young people are undoubtedly needed, questions remain about whether anointing a winner the way the government has, and throwing money at it, is the answer.

Mike King, founder of I Am Hope. PHOTO: NEW ZEALAND HERALD
Mike King, founder of I Am Hope. PHOTO: NEW ZEALAND HERALD
Funding non-governmental organisations to deliver a variety of services, including mental health, is nothing new even though the government gives the impression it is somehow novel.

In this case, however, there was no opportunity for other organisations to make a case for a share of the $24 million. If there was a rigorous examination of what I am Hope can offer compared with other providers, and whether this was the best use of this money, we have not seen it.

We do not know how much of the money for I am Hope will come to the South. Nor is it clear whether the $24 million allocation will mean other mental health providers will face funding cuts.

The government relied on the research the charity funded itself (and which was carried out by Impact Lab, set up and chaired by former prime minister Bill English) which claimed every $1 invested in I am Hope resulted in a social return to New Zealand of $5.70.

Mr Doocey has been quoted as saying he was comfortable with that analysis and had not sought official advice about it.

Such lack of scrutiny would always be unwise. Other perception problems involving links to the National Party have been highlighted in media reporting including donations to the party by the current chairwoman of the charity, although these were made before she took on the role.

The government seems increasingly oblivious to such perception issues. It is hard to work out whether this is arrogance or naivety. Either is frightening.

We wonder how the government is going to deal with another commitment in the NZ First coalition agreement to "ensure Plunket is funded to do their job properly", whatever that means.

Plunket is not the only organisation providing support services for under-5s and their whanau. Will Plunket get more funding at the expense of the others? Will that be fair? Do we know it provides the best service for all families?

The government might not want to be throwing money around like an eight-armed octopus, but if there is poor transparency around its selection process for winners it risks looking like a blinkered runaway horse.