Budget 2018: Public Sector
Social services at a crossroads
By Adithi Pandit
In the context of our Government’s first Budget announcement, social services can be seen to be at a crossroads in New Zealand.
Our system works well for many New Zealanders – middle New Zealand and the wealthy require little from specialist social services – and by broad definition, our universal social services in general perform well. But for families who need additional support, who lack the financial resources to backfill for gaps in services, or who come from communities where there is systemic deprivation or bias, the system is fragmented, contradictory and frequently keeps families trapped in cycles of compliance and subsistence.
Our previous Government chose social investment as the overarching framework for serving these families better. Social investment, still in its early stages of development here, is intuitive in its reliance on early investment, progressive in its recognition of social (not just fiscal) returns, and very tangible as it connects with the corporate structures of agencies: business cases, investment planning cycles, and benefit monitoring.
The criticisms levelled at social investment are more philosophical, but nonetheless important. They include that hyper-targeting undervalues the need for community investment, and that while the ‘most vulnerable’ could be identified at any point in time, there is a much larger group who are at-risk, and these groups are fluid and fragile to shocks. In fact, Deloitte’s State of the State New Zealand 2017 report on household resilience identified this as the primary argument for more universal benefit structures and reduced compliance regimes.
The previous Government’s focus on social investment provided a clear trajectory and guiderails for how services were to improve – by targeting investments related to improving the lives of the most vulnerable.
The mandate of our (now) Government is both more aspirational and less clear, and the difficulty with visionary leadership is usually the translation into management action.
Leading up to the Budget, tangible examples were few and far between, with the majority of announcements both aspirational and rhetorical. The commitments of $100 million in funding for homelessness and $76 million for family violence services were notable exceptions.
The Budget announcements are more hopeful in their clear financial signals, including significant investments in health (including extending free doctors’ visits and prescriptions to under-14-year olds), education, and from a housing perspective, a plan to increase public housing by 6,400 homes over the next four years.
Budget 2018 provides Oranga Tamariki $269.9 million over the next four years to expand its services. This will be essential to follow through on the commitments made to children and youth in care from the 2015 Expert Advisory Panel and Office of the Children’s Commissioner reports.
Two expert units, the Child Poverty Unit and the Child Wellbeing Unit, have been established within the Prime Minister’s Department to develop the Government’s strategy in these key areas. It will be of interest to see how these units work together and create more cross-sector collaboration to achieve outcomes that are family and whanau-centric and dependent, rather than solely child-centric.
The Government has set out a holistic and aspirational vision for social services. By focusing on hauora / wellbeing, the language of Budget announcements has been on universalism and achieving positive outcomes for “every New Zealander”. The challenge now is translating this into tangible outcomes that the sector can put in motion, and equipping the sector with the necessary capabilities to do so.
While strengths-based language moves us away from the label ‘vulnerable’, the reality is there are immediate and pressing needs for relief for many families. Working groups, reforms, and national conversations don’t put food in the pantry or shoes on children’s feet. However, they are what is necessary if we are to shift the end goal of the social service, and set a new trajectory.
By setting clear ambitions with indications of financial backing, the Government has set the two most important levers in motion. The third lever of capacity and capability across NGOs, agencies and communities is slower to turn, but will not move without the first two. The biggest obstacle to achieving wellbeing Budget outcomes will be the ability of the sector to reorient its activities rather than relabel, and to form the necessary coalitions and collaborations to deliver differently.
This Budget was always going to be challenging, given the broad and sweeping campaign commitments from the (now) Government and the multitude of fronts for progress: social, environmental, infrastructural, fiscal and economic. In that context, not surprisingly, Budget 2018 has a clear emphasis on public services, child poverty, housing and homelessness and the protection of natural resources. It does have a very different look and feel to the Budgets delivered by the previous Government. Now we must wait and see how agile the sector can be in reorienting to and implementing the new vision cast, and the new fiscal incentives set.