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Sick of hearing about the investment approach?

One of the troubles of being a researcher is that sometimes you can become so close to the subject that you forget how much/little the average person knows. What seems perfectly obvious or mundane to the researcher may not be so for the general public.

As a researcher who has focussed a lot of time and attention on social issues, I’ve read and heard a lot of speeches from this government on welfare reform. After all, the social investment approach was developed in 2012, that’s three years’ worth of PR on one of the government’s most controversial reforms.

So here’s my question: am I the only one who is sick of hearing about the investment approach?

I don’t mean that because I am opposed — on the contrary, I believe it is an innovative, well targeted mechanism for directing a limited pool of taxpayers’ money. I mean that because it features in nearly every speech, article and interview on this National government’s approach to welfare. And often as an example of its leadership style in general. Commentators the world over fawn over National’s compassionate conservative style, citing welfare reform as one of their major successes.

So why in New Zealand are we still treating it as a new thing? Or am I misjudging the public, so that for many it is indeed new and exciting?

For instance, take this article published in The Herald yesterday. It finds that:

The Treasury has carried out the analysis of anonymised information after being given access to a detailed dataset compiled by the Ministry of Social Development.

The work is part of the Government’s “investment approach” to social spending, which aims to identify where up-front spending can cut costs later.

Treasury’s preliminary analysis shows that children with specific risk factors could have cost taxpayers an average extra $256,000 by the time they hit 36.

Finance Minister Bill English said it aimed to identify which families were the most vulnerable, what help they received and whether that made enough difference.

“We are making a lot of progress with this compared to five or six years ago – flying pretty much blind to now getting much more of a picture of what really happens. It shows that some of these kids are likely to be getting multiple services, these families, some might not be getting much at all.”

Predicted future costs by age 36 were around five times higher for those with all three risk factors – $321,600 compared to $65,500 for the overall cohort.

From what I can tell, these figures are not a new discovery. In fact, Bill English cited those exact numbers in a speech in June. In the same month, Jo Goodhew used a similar figure.

Without yet reading the paper in depth, it seems The Treasury paper has generated some original insights:

The analysis has provided a wide range of new information on the numbers and characteristics of children who have had contact with one, two or multiple government agencies at different stages of childhood. It has provided exploratory results showing the relationships between various indicators of childhood disadvantage and poorer adult outcomes. It has provided a first set of multi-agency estimates of the fiscal costs associated with some forms of childhood disadvantage, focusing on income support, care and protection, youth justice and corrections costs.

But it is hardly news that the government was collecting and analysing this data. Or that government spending will be targeted at those areas with the highest cost. Perhaps it is news that The Treasury has released its preliminary analysis. But how is the public meant to interpret those figures without any benchmarks, prior expectations, or historical comparisons?

Finally, I am a bit miffed with the to-ing and fro-ing of whether this collection and analysis of data is a good thing. Both the media and sometimes even the National Party themselves seem fickle in their view of when data collection and analysis is acceptable. It wasn’t so long ago that Anne Tolley was against a version of this approach, as it treated children as lab rats. The media and public overwhelmingly joined Tolley in outrage. What has changed?

Again, I see nothing wrong with the investment approach.

But, as one of National’s most radical reforms, I do question whether this three year old policy keeps being alluded to because it is the most radical policy National will deliver this term.

Update: I’ve just attended a guest lecture hosted by Treasury on the social investment approach, with Bill English as speaker. The event gained a huge amount of interest, and the room was full of what I can assume are mainly public sector professionals. Now I’m even more confused: surely the public sector at least would be sick of hearing about this?

Update2: After some conversations, it has been brought up that many public servants who have opinions on this aren’t able to comment publicly. Here’s my email address for those with thoughts, I really want to get my head around this government’s strategy: Jenesa.jeram@nzinitiative.org.nz

About Jenesa Jeram (23 Articles)
I'm a researcher at the Initiative, currently working on social issues and public health. I have Twitter but I'm not very good at it: @JenesaJeram (I'm also super creative).

4 Comments on Sick of hearing about the investment approach?

  1. “But it is hardly news that the government was collecting and analysing this data”

    In this I am afraid you are mistaken. Most of the data government collects about people is never analysed, if by that is meant turned into useful information, rather than academic and political info-bites. The result is no real understanding of whether or not the billions spent make a blind bit of good. So, yes, it is revolutionary and lots of public servants going to the session today is good news because it means they now realize the threat it poses to how they work.

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    • Hi TBC, thanks for your comment!

      I agree that for much, much too long data has not been usefully analysed to measure the outcomes and effectiveness that the government spends money on. I can’t quickly find a deep archive of the government’s speeches and press releases, but note that Bill English in particular has been banging this drum at least since 2014 (see http://www.interest.co.nz/news/70314/english-eyes-major-reforms-budget-reporting-after-election-we-dont-understand-patterns-be)

      Since then, this same line of thinking has featured in multiple speeches, press releases and media articles. Note that I am just referring material that has been published. I would have assumed (though I’ll admit now it was a fallible assumption) that public servants would be privy to information on the government’s direction that perhaps the public wouldn’t access.

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  2. I’ll be keen on hearing more about concrete experiments and results that come out of the investment approach. I’ve heard many many times about the specific cohort costs, not so much about the changes that have come of it.

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