Autonomy and aspiration in the public sector

The lives of citizens are much more variable than can ever be captured by the information gathered in research models and administrative data collections. Operational rules and analytical models generally fail to take this natural variability and potential for uncertainty into account. In the absence of good evidence, policy has a greater tendency to rely on rules and sanctions.

Autonomy is important at three levels in social services. The leaders of the system, Ministers and senior public servants, need to be open to having processes challenged, where their cost to citizens and to government is unjustifiable, by what is achieved.

Operational autonomy requires trust in staff and people need to be trained and trusted, and allowed to apply informed judgement, in order for the processes to be seen and trusted by others as effective. The last decades have seen moves in the opposite direction, where detailed processes are intended to prevent every past adverse event, reducing the autonomy people have when they respond to situations. Over the last two decades, by command from the top, social services have managed through adopting cumbersome processes, with little focus on “the right thing to do”, for the consumer.

The third level of autonomy is respect for the autonomy of citizens themselves.

We need greater aspirations for the social services system, and recent reports by the Productivity Commission, the Children’s Commissioner and the Review Panel on Children and Young Persons have pinpointed to ways we need to challenge existing aspirations.

People involved in social services usually have high aspirations for those they are supporting, but that is far from universal. Our vision of a future New Zealand rests on a far larger share of each new generation of babies having better health and educational outcomes than earlier generations. Aspirations must include all communities, ethnicities, genders and abilities.

Finally, we need to find ways of inspiring the aspirations of all in each new generation, at the critical formative stages of their lives.