Evaluation – How citizens have a say in how social services work


Citizens benefit greatly from evaluation when it is used in social services to design and improve services, but they bear the cost when evaluation is weak or absent. This has long been the case for Mäori.

Citizens who use social services rarely have the capacity to have their concerns heard except in occasional customer surveys, or in extreme situations when it becomes a newsworthy topic.

They have few practical means of having complaints heard when they find social services deficient. It is unusual for the true costs such as time, delayed service and missed opportunity incurred by the citizen to be measured when managing social services.

This makes it critical for citizens that the evaluation of programmes occurs both before and after they have been put in place.   Some social service processes are amenable to scientific methods that highlight pressure points and enable alternative processes to be tested before becoming standard practice. For example, operations research is used widely in commercial services but rarely in public services although the methods are relevant to the issues faced in both.

There are well established methods that make continuous improvement possible for both simple and complex processes, and these focus explicitly on improving the value that consumers obtain from services. As reducing the fiscal impact of services has dominated assessments of public sector performance for nearly three decades, continuous improvement has fallen into disuse. A social services system without strong evaluation of any form is like a ship without a rudder.

The recent review by the Productivity Commission, More Effective Social Services, provides evidence of the difficulties that can prevent citizens being connected to services that they are eligible for. Other information suggests that when there is not a strong focus on consumers of services, the state is more inclined to use information in order to apply sanctions, rather than facilitate good connections with citizens. While we know this occurs, evidence of the impact is rare. Unlike other jurisdictions, there is no systematic measurement of the uptake of services, although many other countries are now recognising the sort of problems we face here.

This general absence of evaluation means that the general decline in effectiveness that occurs with all programmes is not well monitored. When some good analysis finally occurs, as with the recent review of the Children, Youth and Family Agency, the findings naturally lead to shock and concern about the neglect in the administration of the service. The Children, Youth and Family Agency may not be alone in the extent to which a narrow set of performance indicators selected for specific programmes were able to overshadow the importance of even simple basic assessments of the way in which the agency affected the lives of the young in its care, especially at such a critical stage of their development.

While we are unlikely to ever have a Citizens’ Responsibility Act to complement the Fiscal Responsibility legislation, a formal requirement for the transparent and objective evaluation of social services programmes would enable public administration and community services to face up to their responsibilities to citizens in a manner that reflects the complex, mobile, diverse informed society that we have now become. We have moved closer to this in recent years, and Superu is one of the significant elements of a change on the way.