The right thing to do – covering all angles

Citizens receive a wide range of services that are provided directly or indirectly by government such as healthcare, education and roading. These services are for everyone. But there are also essential services that are required by a smaller number of people, such as child and family protection, and an even fewer number who require imprisonment and rehabilitation.

Providers of public services face many challenges. They need to be fiscally prudent, meet the many compliance obligations placed on them, and meet consumer’s demands.   We are well aware that the right thing in terms of efficiency and how a providers’ performance is assessed will not necessarily be the right thing for citizens. How they relate is rarely tested unless a catastrophe occurs like the Havelock North water supply. We will gain a lot from a comprehensive and exacting analysis of this incident. The lessons gained should not only affect water management, but public services generally.



Free access to pure water is a vital part of our health system. In Havelock North drinking the town water became a cause of illness rather than part of the cure. Some are saying that information about the contamination was not shared soon enough, putting all citizens at risk. They continued using polluted water as though it was safe.   When water no longer deserves the trust we place in it, then its use should be prevented as soon as it is known to be unsafe. The right thing to do by way of management process when public safety is at risk is to act rapidly, outside of the regular decision-making.   Furthermore, if people’s health is at risk, then information will need to get to every single citizen with the same reliability. The best medium from a citizen’s point of view will vary with the age and attributes of the citizen, not the people delivering the message. However, it is best not to rush to judgement. That will need to await the results of the forthcoming inquiry.

The lessons from Havelock North will be many, and they must carry far beyond the Hawkes Bay, and water.

Other recent cases of public sector decision-making that need similar reflection come to mind –

  • Following the tragic killing of Work and Income employees in Ashburton, WorkSafe have argued in Court that Work and Income local offices should be glassed off. To prevent an “extreme active short event”, clients would only be able to see workers when invited in to the office.   Alternative arguments were presented that pointed out that as we have so few such events, we cannot estimate their likelihood. If access was restricted, there would be a need to also account for the personal cost to individuals visiting Work and Income offices, and the change in relationship between Work and Income and its client base. Many people who visit Work and Income offices already find it uncomfortable. Making the service more impersonal increases the likelihood of misunderstanding and limits the range of support that may be offered. We need to assess the likely harm done to all these people in order to judge the severity of the WorkSafe proposal. The deliberation on the WorkSafe arguments in a judicial process brings a much needed reflection on the variety of perspectives that need to be taken into account by exposure to independent consideration.


  • After two Court cases to evict tenants were dismissed, Housing New Zealand has admitted that their test to measure the presence of methamphetamine is not fit for purpose.   The seriousness of methamphetamine addiction and the harm it causes is well recognised. The cost to individuals associated with “P” is high – being blacklisted by HNZ, massive clean-up bills, and possible oversight of children by CYPS. The severity of response needs to be accompanied by the certainty of guilt. The discovery that the prevalence of “P” at levels above the HNZ thresholds was widespread (even on banknotes) has brought these tests into disrepute not only by the Courts. This again should be cause for reflection.


  • When Corrections place paedophiles amongst communities with young children, they have two contradictory rights to balance – that of a prisoner who has served time for offences, and that of children who society is expected to protect from harm. We know that the harm done to children from child abuse is immense and the consequences for them often lifelong. Prisons seek to rehabilitate offenders, but where recidivism is likely, perhaps there needs to be a response which reflects the nature of the harm. Balancing people’s rights is immensely difficult and where the protection from harm is involved we need to estimate its impact objectively.


  • New Zealand has the highest rate of sudden unexpected death in infants (SUDI) in the western world, with Maori babies greatly over-represented. In 2012 the Minister of Health accepted pepi-pods as a solution. However this was later reversed without fully understanding the level of support for their use. The Ministry then went so far as to forbid funding of pepi-pods, in essence dismissing their value entirely. Despite this, they continued to be used and monitored for a scientific evaluation. This evaluation showed there were fewer incidents of SUDI for Maori, which is where the programme was largely targeted and in the regions with the greatest distribution of pepi-pods. After Ministerial intervention, they are now once again funded.

The Havelock North water incident clearly demonstrated the tensions in these other four cases.   The right thing to do from a provider position may differ greatly from what citizens would recognise as the right thing. As the cases highlight, it is important that we have the Courts or politicians to remind providers, when their own processes fail. We need to have better ways of ensuring that as part of on-going practice, the right thing to do is much more than what providers assess for themselves. There is a huge opportunity for the citizen-centric focus of the social investment model to make the citizen experience a point of reference that should influence all services. This should be the case for all services delivered by local or central government, or those they engage to deliver services.

I welcome your thoughts on these important questions:

  1. Are there simple ways in which consumer experiences can be recognised and more effectively contribute to service delivery?
  1. Do we apply enough of the findings of Court processes when setting the accountability of agencies delivering services?
  1. Have we mechanised performance management so much that the understanding of the purpose of organisations and their place in the lives of citizens has been lost?