Social Investment – are we getting it right?

Brenda photoBrenda Pilott
National Manager
Social Service Partners Aotearoa

With Bill English and Paula Bennett now PM and Deputy PM, social investment’s main champions are well and truly holding the reins of power.  Social investment was already the only game in town –here’s Treasury’s summary of what it means:

Social Investment is about improving the lives of New Zealanders by applying rigorous and evidence-based investment practices to social services. It means using information and technology to better understand the people who need public services and what works, and then adjusting services accordingly.”

Seems uncontroversial?  Not so much.

The Spinoff has been running a series of articles looking ahead including a piece on social investment by Simon Wilson[1] which says: “If the National Party gets its policy of “social investment” right it could stay in power for another generation. So what will Labour and the Greens do about it?”  Wilson fears that National is not actually “getting it right” and are not the right  people to reform the welfare state, though he seems to lack confidence that Labour and the Greens will be effective at doing so either. 

The community sector that contracts with MSD is in the frontline of implementation of the MSD version of social investment, one aspect of which is the requirement for community agencies to provide identifiable client data to MSD in order to receive funding.

This is very controversial.  Why does government need to gather in the names and details of people accessing social services?  Anonymised aggregate data is fine; individual and identifiable details just smacks of surveillance.  Is MSD seriously planning to track service use of the thousands of people using services such as budgeting, counselling, parent support?  It will need an army of data analysts, and to what end?  If we want to know how effective services are – and we do – then a research and evaluation approach stands a better chance of giving us better answers, and hopefully to the right questions.

This is difficult stuff for all concerned.  Our organisations are working constructively with MSD in the face of some seriously challenging ministerial timeframes to find workable and ethical solutions to the challenges this issue poses.

I’m not questioning the use of evidence to shape service funding and provision, or the need for flexibility in aligning services to the needs of individuals and families.  But we have to be careful in drawing conclusions too quickly and on too fragile an evidential basis.

Another Spinoff article[2] by data nerd (his words) Keith Ng raises serious concerns about whether we’re measuring the right things, in the right way, and drawing the right conclusions.  These are big questions and they are the right questions to be asking.

And when better than election year for a real contest of ideas on this subject.  Bring it on.

[1] http://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/12-01-2017/social-investment-the-two-uninspiring-words-upon-which-the-entire-election-could-hang/

[2] http://thespinoff.co.nz/society/13-01-2017/im-a-data-nerd-and-a-data-cheerleader-but-still-i-fear-bill-englishs-datatopia/

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