THE OECD MINISTERIAL CONFERENCE ON EQUITY AND EFFICIENCY IN SOCIAL POLICYSocial Services, Work and Income
TOWARDS STRUCTURAL REFORM
OECD HEADQUARTERS, PARIS, FRANCE
Structural reform is easy to discuss, however it is often hard to face up to and harder still to make deliver.
Structural reform is about making social policy more dynamic, focusing on improving social outcomes not on entitlements.
It means moving beyond fixed views on the role of the State, on institutional boundaries, or on concepts like universality.
It means being prepared to challenge those with vested interests in the status quo whether it's public bureaucracy or advocacy groups.
It means the State involving others in the solution, local government, the community, the business sector, and most importantly individuals and families.
In New Zealand we have not only faced up to the realities of overhauling a social security system designed for a bygone era but we have made decisions which will see labour market policies and social support policies effectively harnessed together.
The prime objectives of the reforms now underway in my country are logical and straightforward.
to reduce long term dependency;
to return people to work as soon as is possible; and,
to strengthen families so they have the skills to help themselves.
Social security entitlements are being matched with responsibilities to encourage people to return to work, we are making structural changes to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Government agencies, and delivery processes are being refined to ensure we have the best possible service to help people move from welfare to self reliance.
New Zealand's current employment strategy is targeted to help all working age beneficiaries move from welfare to work.
In the past it has been administratively and politically convenient to concentrate return-to-work efforts on those narrowly identified as "unemployed". Such policies not only ignored the growth of dependent populations among the sick, invalids and sole parents but also overlooked the fact that these groups of people also have a similar desire to be self sufficient.
In the area of benefit reform we have introduced a fundamental shift in the way people are assessed for their capacity to work. We have moved 180 degrees and instead of asking someone what they are incapable of doing, we are asking what can you do? What would you like to do? This work first philosophy is part of a new era of social security which has reciprocal obligations at its heart.
This means being willing and ready to undertake skills training, to look for a job and to accept work when it is available. Its about keeping people connected, motivated, upskilled and focused on setting and achieving independent life goals.
Unemployment, sickness and even invalids beneficiaries will be assessed on the basis of their ability to undertake paid work. The same principle will apply to sole parents and widows who will be expected to look for part-time work from the time their youngest child turns 6 and full time work from the time their youngest child turns 14.
Together with these expectations we are offering a comprehensive child care package with more funding for greater child care and after school care subsidies to help low income working parents meet the cost of child care and funding to help set up after school programmes to meet the increase demand for places.
In New Zealand the delivery of income support has always been separated from the delivery of employment services, which has resulted in poorly integrated policies and procedures. It has created confusion and duplication for customers and I have no doubts that for some people seeking work it slowed down their return-to-work efforts. All that is about to change.
From 1 October this year, Income Support - the benefit payment arm of the Department of Social Welfare - will be amalgamated with the Employment Service. It will create a one-stop-shop where those seeking income support and employment services can access integrated services with an overriding focus on returning them to the workforce as quickly as possible.
Income and employment services will be delivered through a single case management process, which means that every one of our 900,000 customers will deal with just one person on a one to one basis who will help manage them toward independence. This case manager will develop an action plan with the customer, which will identify just what the customer wants to work towards and steps that will help them achieve their goal.
While we have targeted these fundamental changes at working age beneficiaries we are also very mindful that if we are to achieve long term solutions for disadvantaged families, we need to help them early on. If we are to effectively break the cycle of welfare dependency we must target help and support for families at risk, to ensure the children of today do not become the unhealthy, unskilled and unemployed of tomorrow.
This is happening under a visionary strategy that we call "Strengthening Families".
For the first time, the Health, Education and Social Welfare are now looking to work together in a fully co-ordinated way to make sure children and young people most at risk are getting the appropriate help.
It sounds logical but these three large social agencies together command over 50% of the total tax take, or $25.3 billion, and yet until Strengthening Families began they had never worked together in a co-ordinated way on such a grand scale, either at a national level or within local communities.
Simple measures like ensuring there is a lead worker where more than one state agency is involved in a case are helping recapture the effectiveness lost in recent years through an over enthusiastic emphasis on outputs rather than outcomes. It is preventing some families from falling through the cracks.
I'll give you an example.
I know of one young person which had nine agencies involved in his life:
a public health nurse,
a Maori mental health group
the local school
the local hospital as a mental health provider
Barnardo's (a child protection agency)
a local community support service
the State child protection service
their doctor, and
a local Maori social service provider.
The question is, who was in control?
Who was taking responsibility for co-ordinating these agencies around that child?
The answer is; no one.
No agency had overall responsibility.
And this young person was getting multitude of often confusing messages.
And like many others, was not being asked to take any responsibility or control of his own life.
We are also trailing a new programme called Family Start which involves the screening of all births in the areas where the programme is running. The screening programme will pick up about 15% of children born into families where there are indications of multiple problems. Those families will then be subject to further analysis with many being offered special help in the form of a key worker who will get alongside the family and tap into the various services and supports necessary to help the family develop. Families at highest risk will move from an intensive period of assistance over the first two years into a period of contact that lasts until the child enters school at the age of five.
Strengthening Families complements that more immediate side of the Government ?s employment strategies, and will, in time we hope, provide a platform to turn around some of the causes of long term dependency. It won't happen overnight, but we as a Government have a responsibility to take some action now.
In other words, its about structural reform in social policy delivering the twin goals of equity and efficiency.