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Does Government understand what New Zealanders expect of it?

photo of dave HendersonDave Henderson
Manager, External Relations, Hui E! Community Aotearoa

Writing a submission in response to the Productivity Commission’ Draft Report on Social Services caused me to do some thinking about the relationship between government and the community and voluntary sector, how that is changing, and why.

It’s pretty clear in the ongoing confusion of ideas and announcements around the future of community housing that government is being forced by public opinion to take on responsibility for some things it is not ideologically comfortable with.


Many of the Key government’s policies are retreads from the previous National led regime but the housing debacle is new territory. Clearly many among the public view the provision of housing for vulnerable people as a responsibility of government. Even if day to day management is to be by community organisations on their behalf, government still has a responsibility to make sure community groups have a workable, sustainable package.

The public are not easily misled on this – even the Productivity Commission acknowledges “the New Zealand public tends to consider the Minister of Health to be accountable for health services. As an institutional form, DHBs appear to be relatively ineffective in muting the political risks of the Minister of Health.”

There is much in the Commission’s draft report that I would support – for example its analysis of the problems with government’s contracting regime is quite penetrating – but there is also a lot that is problematic.

For example, Feedback to Hui E! on Chapter 9: Investment and insurance approaches stressed the over-emphasis on fiscal management and economic analysis, with terms such as “future welfare liability” and “intertemporal transfers”, at the expense of any discussion of the bigger moral question – What can a citizen expect in the way of support from Government in a decent society?

This is surely a matter on which citizens should have a say – and in terms of building and maintaining a sustainable society it is probably more important than issues the government is consulting on, such as whether to change the New Zealand flag. Is the flag ‘debate’ an attempt by this government to create a legacy (not quite in the same league as Barack Obama’s US healthcare reforms) or is it a deliberate attempt to distract us from the real issues like environmental and social sustainability?

There is a similar values disconnect in other places in the draft report. For example in its Finding 7.4 we read that “the social services system appears to be too focused on central government as a source of new ideas”.

I strongly disagree. This may be the case for people in government, but community sector organisations do not look to government for constructive innovation. From a community sector perspective what is more real is the experiencing central government as an over-controlling gatekeeper of which ideas are trialled.

Innovation is alive and well among community based social services providers – witness our responses to earthquakes and the GFC – but we also recognise that even the best ideas still face an uphill battle to gain interest, let alone funding, from government. In a ‘no new funding’ environment huge effort can be required to gain support for even a small pilot project, so very many new ideas are simply abandoned.

A major difference between government agencies and community providers in this context is the cultural and philosophical basis that is necessary for innovation. Government agencies tend to deal with complexity by fitting people and ideas into an established structure, while community organisations tend to welcome complexity, value it, and respond accordingly.

What government needs to recognise is that the whole enterprise, whether we talk about Aotearoa/New Zealand as a whole or just social services, is not one that government can manage alone.

Writing for Hui E! I included in our submission some recommendations of our own:

  • An allocation for overheads must be included as an integral part of service provision in all Government contracts with community-based social service providers, [believe it or not this is rarely permitted!] and this allocation must include provision for staff training and development, at a level similar to that regarded as the norm in the funder’s own agency.

In response to the proposal that government “should establish an Office for Social Services” to oversee stewardship of the whole system, we acknowledged the idea might have some merit, but;

  • Any agency that is created for or given the task of stewardship of social services overall must have as its governance a combined group with government officials appointed by government, community based provider representatives appointed by that group, and Iwi representatives appointed by Iwi.
  • Greater clarity around the implications of the Treaty and the relationship between Iwi and the Crown should be the starting point for service design.
  • Community-based providers are generally committed to providing the service as their highest priority, seeking funds from other sources to keep services going, but it is unethical and short-sighted for government to trade on that so as to get cheaper services while under-funding the essentials of staff training, development and innovation;
  • The report underestimates and under-acknowledges the importance of the social services workforce, which for NGO providers generally comprises in excess of 50% of the service cost, and is just as much in need of training as staff in the government agencies involved;
  • Undue focus on a narrow vision of consumer (or client) directed models risks reducing social services to the level of addressing only a pre-selected range of individual problems, and in that losing completely the communitarian values that underpin NGO provision of social services in the first place.

This brings us back to the point at the beginning – there is a growing disconnect in values between the current government and much of the community. To carve a sustainable social future will require shared policy-making and decision-making. We have good relationships with officials in many government agencies, but is elected government ready for that?