Sowing the seeds: capabilities and recommendations for a wellbeing future


Article 10

Sowing the seeds: capabilities and recommendations for a wellbeing future

Our conclusion brings together the learnings from the series, providing recommendations for the public and private sectors to improve wellbeing for all Kiwis.

We have learned throughout this series that putting wellbeing at the centre of our government’s policy and practice can make New Zealand a better place. We can use wellbeing frameworks to align incentives in the system, and therefore the choices we make, with what New Zealanders actually value.

It seems too often that our public servants have to work around, or even against, the system to do what we feel is right. It too often requires acts of bold leadership or individual endeavour to make the trade-offs that the system should support, such as balancing natural capital with financial payback.

Māori-led initiatives such as Whānau Ora have a much more sophisticated approach to wellbeing, rooted in the actual needs of the people concerned, and have demonstrated real results. Notably, these have been developed largely outside our standard state service frameworks, in order to avoid in-built constraints.

So we know it can be done, here in New Zealand. And as we have learned in the previous articles the key measurement frameworks are well-developed and have even been adapted for New Zealand in Treasury’s Living Standards Framework. The current Government is making wellbeing the focus of their next Budget and the State Services Commission is considering public service reforms which are well aligned with this focus.

Will it make a difference?

To make a difference in the real world, the new policy objectives and measurements must lead to different decisions and actions on the ground.

To be more specific, some funding and investment cases which previously would have been declined must be approved, and vice versa. Some business rules and acceptance criteria must change to allow and disallow different activities. In a world of limited resources we make trade-offs with every decision today – to improve our wellbeing we must make different trade-offs tomorrow.

The public sector can make a massive difference by reallocating its own resources to increase wellbeing directly. It spends just over 28.5% of GDP on public services. But this is less than half the job and it will be a disappointing missed opportunity if government attempts to lift wellbeing on its own. Most of the potential to improve New Zealanders’ lives sits with individuals, communities and organisations outside the public sector.

Government can only indirectly influence the decisions and actions outside its borders but the potential gains are enormous. Indirect influence and the contributions of others will be critical components in the overall strategy.

What does this mean for the state of the State?

We are fortunate to have a dedicated, professional and independent public sector. To make wellbeing work they need to build up several key capabilities:

Sowing the seeds: capabilities and recommendations for a wellbeing future

Key capabilities

These capabilities, and the overall wellbeing approach, will take time to embed and will evolve as our wellbeing priorities change. To be sustained over time the concept must become core to the operation of the government, and not a party-political issue subject to our short electoral cycle.

What should we do?

To make a start, we recommend the following actions. These alone won’t achieve the capability shifts described above, but they can be done quickly and will begin the process of learning that is necessary.

  1. Explicitly address the capabilities required to support wellbeing in the current reviews of the State Sector Act and Public Finance Act. This should include changes to investment, service delivery and accountability frameworks to encourage collaboration, evaluation and re-prioritisation. As an example, Statements of Intent and Annual Reports must be able to accommodate joint activity across agencies. 
  2. Require all new business cases and operational budget requests to provide a balanced economic case covering the expected impact on wellbeing, monitoring their approach and how the resources involved would be released in future if impact is lower than expected. 
  3. Require all new government agencies and programmes to have a specified life (such as five or ten years), when a formal review against wellbeing criteria will inform whether they should continue, change, or be discontinued. Ensure all current government agencies and programmes are reviewed against wellbeing criteria within the next five years. Set a percentage or absolute dollar target to end spending with low wellbeing impact each year, allowing funds to be reallocated to more impactful areas over time. 
  4. Create a dedicated fund to strengthen wellbeing research, analysis and evaluation capability and capacity across government, business and not-for-profits. 
  5. In partnership with communities, business and not-for-profits, develop frameworks for co-designing policy and programmes with New Zealanders. These frameworks must address key subjects such as the balance between individual and collective objectives, the role of evidence and expertise, the overlapping nature of our communities and trade-offs between short- and long-term objectives. Require agencies to use these frameworks for all material investments, policies and programmes.

We believe that a wellbeing focus could become an enduring shift in the operation of our state, even if it takes time to get it right. As we have discussed in our previous State of the State reports, greater investment in resilience and long term social impact are essential for New Zealanders to thrive. We see wellbeing as a much fairer and more sustainable way for the state to guide that investment, helping New Zealanders to lead the lives we set out to lead.

A summary of key takeaways from the earlier articles in the series:

Article 1 – Wellbeing in abundance: looking after our own backyard

“Wellbeing is an evolution of social investment: it is the why of social investment. Wellbeing will mean transformation of portfolios, business cases, policy, measurements of outputs/outcomes and resource allocation. Instead of asking how can we maximise outputs within our existing budget?, agencies might need to ask how can we maximise outcomes across all four capitals?

Article 2 – Beyond GDP: measuring New Zealand’s wellbeing progress

“Dissatisfaction with income as a measure of wellbeing has a long history. If the purpose of public policy is to improve wellbeing, as we believe it should be, then measuring the progress of wellbeing is of public interest. The current Government has clearly signalled that it wants to frame, design, and implement public policy with an objective of increasing overall wellbeing, not just income, on a sustained basis. If academics, businesses and public servants do not lift their games and provide all the support we can to help the Government achieve this vision, we will have missed a unique opportunity and failed.”

Article 3 – Paving the way to wellbeing: the evolution of social investment

“It is clear that in just two years, the development of social investment and its evolution to investing for social wellbeing has had positive impacts for how the public sector and NGOs operate. It has strengthened advice and enabled pockets in organisations to better measure and evaluate their programmes, and in doing so, deliver on wellbeing. The people we interviewed were enthusiastic about the further gains that could be made as they embedded a data- and evidence-focused approach to strengthen policy development and service delivery. They see opportunities to continue to drive collaboration across the sector. A number of interviewees felt a wellbeing approach could be embedded in policy development if it became more than a Budget device, for example, baking it into public sector management tools like business cases and Cabinet papers.”

Article 4 – Building New Zealand’s social capital: a family-by-family approach

“In New Zealand we have relied for a long time on the willingness of those who work in the social sector to go “above and beyond” to find ways to meet the needs of their clients in spite of the current system. Strengthening a family-by-family approach is not a panacea, and does not tackle a number of systemic issues such as hospital waiting lists, housing affordability and transport infrastructure. However, the benefits case for this model is strong, both from an evidence base and from existing business cases for social investment and integrated social services. We see the family-by-family approach as a credible and practical first step to address some of the complex, long-standing problems that create intergenerational poverty and dysfunction.”

Article 5 – Inclusive and resilient communities: co-creating our human and social capital

“We need to listen. Government will have to move beyond public consultation and connect deeply with communities on issues they are struggling with. We are talking about a fundamental shift in policy-making. Policy-makers will need to become custodians of the process that ensures co-creation of policy rather than remaining custodians of the knowledge. We need novel and long-term solutions to ensure a sustainable future in order to, as Māori also say, protect the Earth that we are borrowing from our children.”

Article 6 – Shifting the landscape: what a wellbeing focus could mean for business

“It is important that none of the four capitals is taken for granted. We know for example, not to take our natural capital for granted. The same should be true for financial/physical capital. The New Zealand economy is in an envious position compared to many developed nations, and underlying the narrative around wellbeing is a requirement for the economy to function in a way that supports all capitals. However, economies are subject to shocks and New Zealand is no different – whether that shock be driven globally or domestically. It is therefore important that change occurs at an acceptable pace, with an appropriate balance between all capitals, and one eye firmly on the economic implications of policy developments that have a wellbeing lens.”

Article 7 – Trust: a cornerstone of wellbeing: the building blocks for a flourishing society

“The building blocks of trust apply to both individuals and organisations alike. Second, trust is dynamic and is therefore something that needs to be revisited, readjusted and recalibrated at various points. Third, a key mechanism to enable this is a reflection, both on an individual and institutional level. Leaders who reflect will be more open and ethical in their approach. Institutions that enable reflection have cultures that are accessible and supportive. Those that do not reflect are in danger of becoming hermetically sealed and toxic. Crucially, the final message is that these elements must develop together. A better trust relationship allows for more openness and better quality reflection, and in doing so it is more likely to lead to higher levels of trust. Overall, this increases wellbeing. It can be a virtuous circle and is a path that New Zealand would do well to continue down.”

Article 8 – The importance of place: a cities and regions view of wellbeing

“Looking ahead to next year’s Wellbeing Budget, we hope to see the Government apply wellbeing indicator tools effectively to ensure appropriate allocation of resources across regions to optimise regional wellbeing. Central government has a role in addressing issues such as housing affordability, crime and imprisonment rates, access to health and other support services, employment conditions, protecting and enhancing the environment, and support for regional authorities, businesses and non-for-profits. To enable policy to effectively consider people and regions who are at most risk of experiencing low levels of wellbeing, in our view the Government needs to apply a subnational lens to the use of wellbeing measures. Evidence-based localised policy is a key to reducing inequality and creating more ‘haves’ and fewer ‘have-nots’.”

Article 9 – Oranga mo Aotearoa: a Māori perspective on wellbeing

As demonstrated, improving outcomes for Pākehā does not necessarily improve outcomes for Māori, but the reverse is true. Improving Māori wellbeing will have a positive flow on effect throughout the New Zealand economy – from reduced public sector costs through to higher tax revenue from educated and employed Māori.

Māori-focussed approaches will not only help Māori but also New Zealand as a whole and these should be embraced and applauded.

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