The year in review – part 3

This is the third and final part of Len Cook’s reflections on the 2016-17 year and coincides with the release of the annual report for the Families Commission/Superu.

Linking administrative records across several social and justice sector agencies has created a much enriched evidence base. This gives a new understanding about what happened to people who had been given some support in the past by the social services system. It gives us fresh insights into the outcomes of these services, how well they have worked and how they have changed.

We need to separately identify the experiences of different cohorts of people, and where policy and operational practices ought to have changed. While it is methodologically not possible to infer or predict with any precision the future characteristics of any single person from those of the groups of the past, policy change can be much better informed from these data whenever evidence is sought to improve services.

Administrative records provide a rich but partial view of the experiences of consumers, as many of these experiences can include delays, loss of documents and repeated referrals elsewhere which are not recorded. The evaluation studies led by Superu provide some evidence of the potential for gaps between how agencies assess performance and how consumers judge they have been treated.

Where social services departments have contracted NGOs to deliver services, the form of performance measures sought by contracting departments has been quite narrowly focused on fiscal aspects, which can crowd out continuous improvement initiatives and innovation. As a consequence, the transfer of knowledge and experience from the NGO sector had not been enabled to play a part in policy analysis. This understanding has been strengthened by Superu being at arm’s length from the large departments and their NGO contracts, and able to engage in evaluation studies and collaboration with the sector.

The current social investment approach is driven by opportunities from new information sources and analysis. Up to now, the considerable expansion of information sources of value to policy analysis and improving delivery has not been matched by a comparable lift in analytical capability. The reports of the Productivity Commission, the Expert Review of Child Protection and other related inquiries suggest that much of this will need support through continuous improvement. These reviews highlight a need for a lift in basic measurement skills, as well as autonomy and commonality in understanding of what is the right thing to do.

Without a significant lift in analytical capability, we will not know what it is that makes some policies work well, and others not. Superu has developed frameworks for evaluating the adequacy of the evidence base of policies, and now there needs to be commitment to its adoption.

Where methods of measurement, modelling and analysis affect the lives of groups of people, either through the application of policy at a macro level or the delivery of services at a personal level, then their quality needs to be made transparent by both qualitative and quantitative assessments. To ensure the integrity of such work, which can influence the duration of incarceration, child protection decisions or eligibility for accident compensation, government urgently needs to develop an obligatory quality management framework for evidence that impacts on people’s lives.

In other fields of endeavour where evidence has a major impact on the wellbeing of people, quality frameworks are well established and are integral to the trustworthiness of the services. To be relevant for New Zealand, such a quality framework must recognise what is needed to be relevant to Māori and make transparent how the distinct characteristics of other cultures are taken account of. Whenever getting it wrong can adversely affect citizens as well as benefiting them when getting it right, there needs to be transparency and validation of a standard comparable to that well used in official statistics.

I hope that our contribution has helped invigorate commitments to understanding, widening and enriching the evidence base for social services policy and delivery.

E te Minita, e te Kāwanatanga, tēnā koutou. Ki ngā whānau katoa o te motu, tihei mauriora. Me mihi ka tika ki te hunga i whakapau kaha mō te kaupapa nei, ko te whānau; me te whakatupu taitamariki hei rangatira mō āpōpō. Ahakoa kua heke te tai mō te kōmihana nei, ka pupuri tonu mātou ki te tika o ā matou mahi ki te tiaki i ngā whānau katoa o Aotearoa, Māori mai, Pākehā mai. Koia rā ko Superu me ana rangahau i hemo wawe atu nā te whakaaro hui a te kāwanatanga. Nā reira waiho ki reira, kia hura haere ai ā ngā tau e whai atu nei. Engari anō mō te ngākau o te tangata e hotu tonu ana mō te kaupapa, hei kaiakiaki, hei kaikawe kōrero mō te oranga tonutanga o tēnei taonga ko te whānau.

I acknowledge the Minister and the government with responsibilities for the Families Commission. I also pay tribute to all families and whānau throughout Aotearoa. It is important to pay homage to those who have invested their energy in the nurturing of our children as our future leaders of tomorrow. Although this commission is now in the throes of our demise, we as individuals continue to hold fast to our respective commitments to care for whānau and families across the country. In particular, we remain concerned for our truncated Superu research programme which is now being integrated into larger government objectives and functions. We look forward to seeing the results of this over the coming years. But in our hearts as departing commissioners we continue to be active in our lives as nurturers and advocates for the family and its ongoing efficacy as a treasure of our nation.

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