The launch of ‘Social Investment- A New Zealand Policy Experiment’

Fa’atalofa atu, malo e lelei, ia orana katou katoa

I want to acknowledge Jonathan Boston and Derek Gill and all the contributors – professors, economists, advisors, researchers, chief executives and even a former deputy prime minister! This book is a credit to all those involved.  On that note can I also acknowledge Bridget Williams and her publishing team for bringing this book to life!

Years ago – before I had heard of the term ‘social investment’, I was having a conversation with a beneficiary advocate, someone well regarded and probably well known to all of you but I won’t mention her name.  We were having a general conversation about the struggle of beneficiaries – the judgement, the stigma, the hardship and the impact that this can have on a person’s psyche and ability to get on with life.  During that conversation I reflected on my own personal journey having been a sole parent and briefly on the DPB and I asserted that most people just want to know that others believe that they have something to contribute and that because of this, they are worth investing in.  Well, ‘invest’ was the wrong word to use that day.  I got a mini-lecture about how people weren’t commodities to be ‘invested in’ and that type of language was dangerous.  Little did I know, at that time, how that concept might grow.

I think there has been an expectation whilst in opposition and now in government that I, and my colleagues, would go one of two ways. Either, one- declare war on Social investment and condemn Bill English and National for it. Or two- roll over and acknowledge Bill English as a genius and the potential saviour of all New Zealanders with high and complex needs. It’s not that black and white for a number of reasons and today I wanted to explain this perspective a little more.

I actually don’t mind the term ‘social investment’.  Why wouldn’t we want to invest in people? In our social services? In our social system?  That’s what springs to my mind when I see those two words together.  For me it’s about believing in the potential of all those three things, and getting in behind them – our people, our services and systems. It’s about looking for ways to effectively support and maximise that potential.

I’m not convinced this is an entirely new idea.  For a long time Governments have developed services and initiatives that promote early intervention but that has never meant that intervention at other points aren’t also crucial. Sarah Hogan illustrates this well using the health model – discussing the need for primary, secondary and tertiary prevention – all important for different reasons but making the point that it isn’t just at the early stages of prevention that we need to be looking to intervene.

In saying this, effective intervention can’t happen without evidence, data and evaluation.  You can’t expect to be able to effectively support someone if you are running blind without the insights, information and tools you need to make evidence based decisions on what that looks like. 

Some of my initial work as the Minister responsible for social investment has focused on understanding New Zealand’s data infrastructure, like the IDI and Data Exchange, so it was good to see some of that mentioned in the book. We have a wealth of data that we have access to here in New Zealand- but I know that the infrastructure to use that effectively isn’t necessarily where we need it to be. Moving forward I’m interested in how we can improve that.

But, as Amanda Wolf points out both analytical and non-analytical information are important. As a politician people’s real and lived experiences are important to me. So when we are thinking about data and social investment we also need to understand, professional judgement, moral and ethical positions the diverse social and cultural contexts of people’s lives. These are all pivotal factors to interrogating data, interpreting insights and understanding how services need to respond on the ground.  Data and analytics are important but they cannot be divorced from the human experience of how and why we use them.

We also need to remember that Government agencies are not the only ones who are integral in developing social investment that works.  Jo Cribb rightly points out that NGOs are critical to successful social investment and good insights need to be developed with good implementation on the ground in mind. 

We have an urgent need to break down the silos when dealing with such complex and cross cutting issues like child poverty, mental health or housing. This is true of both government agencies and NGOs – building trust and maintaining it is incredibly important amongst one another but also it helps to build trust with the people we serve. I think successive governments have struggled with how to do this and to date – no one has got it exactly right. But we as a government are committed to breaking down those silos and building that trust.

Let’s not forget the actual investment part. We need to understand what type of resource is required? When and where would you use that resource?  If you do all of the work to develop insights in understanding wicked problems - but never go as far as committing to answer these questions, then the whole concept has fallen over. I’m keen not to make this a theoretical exercise into simply proving that some of the experiences of New Zealander’s in hardship are actually real.

So whilst I support a social investment approach, I really couldn’t get in behind the previous government’s version – especially when the risk of long term welfare dependency was one of the key focusses!  I personally don’t want us measuring the ‘potential risk’ of our 17 year olds in this way. What kind of starting point is that!?  When you’ve spent time like me as a teacher and in the education sector you fundamentally know that when you use a deficit approach to people, you will get a deficit result. That won’t be my approach.  

The other issue with the previous government’s approach was the idea of ‘data at any cost’. And of course, it isn’t easy to balance the need for data to respond to really challenging problems with the protection of people’s privacy. But the way forward on this is not blunt policy reform requiring individualised client level data. People’s privacy rights need to be protected. The way forward needs to be about building a considered approach that builds partnership and social licence. We need to ask questions like what is adequate consent?  What are the ethics around the safe and transparent use of information? How do we understand Maori data sovereignty? We need to answer these questions together and I intend to. Part of the work we are busy preparing is going to help build greater transparency and better policy specific to data protection and use.

I also know the last government was adamant social investment had to be tightly targeted and have been critical of our Prime Minister’s mention of proportionate universalism - but I agree with her.  If you try to target too precisely people who need support miss out.  A great explanation I was given was that when applied to social investment- proportionate universalism, means that the universality of some provisions of the welfare state remain as well as the ability to focus resources on people who have high and complex needs. Yes, there are those in great hardship that our universal welfare provisions assist, but there are also many who are just one flat tyre or one doctor’s bill away from missing the rent and a spiral of debt. It shouldn’t be either or.

I want to take the opportunity to acknowledge the Social Investment Agency, Dorothy Adams and her team for really helping our government extend its thinking in this space. Over the past couple of months our small but mighty team have been busy behind the scenes preparing for what I’m hoping will be a new and inclusive approach to social investment.

It’s an exciting place to be as we use the learnings gained to date to repackage social investment - this book couldn’t have come at a better time to support that vision so thank you. Particularly for the insights and different approaches the Government might take and exploring how social investment might evolve to serve the needs of New Zealanders. I hope that its publication will generate much engagement and discussion – both amongst sector specialists and the general public. It’s important that we discuss social investment more widely than the ‘beltway’ in an inclusive way to include those who more often than not may be directly impacted but have very little say. I’m looking forward to seeing more of this.

Thank you once again for the opportunity to launch this timely book and I look forward to drawing on your many insights as we travel this road together.  Watch this space.

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