How National will deliver social services

Gordon Campbell

The National Party’s reluctance to reveal its policy plans passed the point of diminishing returns quite some time ago. Trying to control the way a political debate unfolds is one thing – but deception of the public is something else. The money quote in yesterday’s Merrill Lynch report was that National has been telling insurers privately more than it has been speaking publicly about its plans for an ACC scheme central to the public’s workplace security and wellbeing. Don’t we deserve to be told about John Key’s plans for our own compensation scheme – before he informs the Australian insurers who stand to profit from the changes?

On a related front yesterday, Key introduced an interesting moral distinction. Yes, in 2002 he did ask parliamentary written questions about Tranzrail in which his family trust held 30,000 shares, but he had sold the shares before he commented publicly about rail privatization. With respect, that’s not the point. The point was in the asking, not in the telling. Ordinary shareholders do not enjoy the privilege of using parliamentary written questions to extract information from which they potentially stand to gain. The timing of a decision to sell – or to buy – shares is an economic activity arguably more to the benefit of John Key, Citizen, than John Key,MP.

In Britain, careers have been damaged beyond repair by the use of parliamentary questions for economic gain. There is no evidence that was the intention here. What the public deserves at the very least though, is an apology from Key for blurring the lines. The distinction is so basic that even a perception does damage to the institution – put simply, MPs should not be holding shares in enterprises that they are subjecting to parliamentary scrutiny. .

Despite yesterday’s events, it seems unlikely that National will suddenly become any more transparent – to the public at least – about its policy intentions. Its corporate friends may continue to get more information. By default, we have only the evidence that can be gleaned from speeches and press releases. Earlier this week, John Key said at the close of his Journal No. 40 videoclip on sports funding that : ‘ National is going to have a better balance on where money is spent in government. The announcement I made on sports funding is just one example of that.” Key then went on to list all the various government departments and agencies with a role in sports funding. So many bureaucrats, so much scope for duplication. So, we probably should be taking Key at his word, and treating his sports funding proposals as a model for how he plans to manage the bureaucratic business of government, once elected.

The big bucks – and the obvious place for an agenda of small government and social renewal – are in social services, which has always been a politically fertile era for National. To avoid scaring voters, National has shelved most of the welfare bashing tendencies that formed the core of Don Brash’s Orewa II speech in 2005 – but given the way the economy has been heading south for most of this year, those issues seem ripe for a comeback.

There is never a good time to be poor. This year though, New Zealand has entered its normal business cycle downturn just as the triple whammy of rising oil prices, soaring food prices and the global credit crunch have hit the country. Already, this is starting to send beneficiary numbers upwards from their recent historic lows, and those figures will become very apparent before the election campaign begins in earnest.

What Key has in mind has less to do with the details – say, the numbers on invalids and sickness benefits – than with changing the entire mode of social services delivery. As Derek Senior pointed out in a 2006 paper for AUT social service delivery have de-volved considerably in recent years from central government to community organizations. While NGOs may have not been engaged in actually setting the benefit levels or the entitlement rules, they have been doing just about everything else.

Instead of allocating grants for such work, the state has built up longer term, contractual relations with the community sector. Those contracts have had consequences for the scale, the professionalism and the relative permanence of NGO social service arrangements. Currently, there are a raft of NGOs employing skilled and professional staff rather than unpaid volunteers, and they form an essential outreach arm of Internal Affairs, and the Ministries of Health, Social Welfare, Education etc.

National, if it is to make any real inroads into spending on social services will be out to change many of those relationships. More is st stake than mere platforms for delivery. At times, NGOS also perform a useful role as social critics of government policy. Because of their daily experience at the coalface, they tend to speak out when policy is unworkable, will identify how it needs to be changed or call for extra funding when it is needed. Governments of course, don’t always respond.

At its best though, this inherent tension in the NGO relationship with government has a definite upside. Officials can use fair criticism to fine tune delivery, and thus protect their political masters and the public at large from the unforeseen consequences of policy. It is not a perfect situation. Some of the criticism from NGOs tends to be rote, and the sector is relatively compliant for good reason – the $446 million Pathways to Partnership package announced in February for instance, allows for virtual 100 % funding inputs by government.

However, the current situation is better than the alternatives waiting in the wings. Community organizations from Barnardos to Plunket to Rape Crisis ( not to mention the various organizations that promote Treaty issues) can currently get on with the job with a fair degree of independence and funding stability, while still playing a valuable role for the public as social critics within our democracy.

If National does win the election, it is likely to change how this NGO sector interacts with government. To any freshly empowered Treasury bean counter, the degree of professionalism and contractual permanence of some of the current NGO relationships will very likely be seen as unduly expensive. When you don’t understand or care much about root causes, cheaper can always seem better.

Will churches and corporates become more closely involved in service funding and delivery? You can bet on it. So far in New Zealand, we haven’t had that much difficulty in separating church and state, or keeping corporate and non-profit roles apart in the provision of social services. Worldwide, these lines are fast becoming blurred – and the sort of safeguards and standards needed to retain the secular delivery of social services is still a controversial work in progress. Even Barack Obama for instance, has promised to overhaul and expand George W. Bush’s ‘faith based’ initiatives, which entail funding religiously based organizations. Obama sees this sector as a key ally in his campaign to help the needy.

Not surprisingly, this is causing some concern among liberal Democrats who oppose any form of state funding of religious groups – a concern that Obama has tackled head on, by saying that the country’s problems are too big to be solved by government action alone. “I believe that change comes not from the top down but from the bottom up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques,” Obama said in a recent speech, while still defending the constitutional distinction between church and state.

The safeguards that are required to keep that distinction alive ? Religious groups receiving state funds cannot be allowed to evanglkise, Obama insists, among the people that they help, and nor could they discriminate in their hiring practices, on the basis of religion. Faith-based groups could only use federal dollars for secular programs. In addition, Obama committed himself to ensuring that taxpayer dollars would only go to “programs that actually work.”

New Zealand may need to specifically re-impose similar requirements on the charitable organizations and corporates that will receive state funding for social services in future.. We need to ensure that regardless who delivered the services, the tone and content of delivery – and the workplace conditions – remain strictly secular and non-profit. So far though, this debate has been couched solely in terms of efficiency and waste – ie, in the language Key used to discuss sports funding. And who isn’t in favour of trimming unnecessary bureaucracy, of cutting waste and duplication, and of freeing more resources for frontline staff?

Behind that rhetoric though, what new structures for social service funding and delivery does National have in mind? Some changes will be pretty obvious. You would expect a centre-right government to promote corporate opportunities for the sponsorship of social services, and to devolve as much delivery as humanly possible to large, church-based voluntary organizations. Being cheaper however, should not be enough to clinch the contract. Anti-drug programmes in schools for instance. should be required to prove that they will actually work, and not serve merely as feel-good expressions of concern about social problems, at the taxpayer’s expense.

Key will be looking for major cost savings and culling of ‘bureaucrats.” At the very least, expect a stock-take of all social services currently contracted for by government, quickly followed by steps to rationalize the delivery of services – under the roof of one super-agency. Key is rumoured to be a very big fan of the Australian charity organisation Mission Australia.

With or without the advice of Crosby Textor, Key would regard Mission Australia as a large, business friendly, religiously motivated community provider of many services that are currently spread in New Zealand across disparate organizations. The rationalisation of those NGOs would be a politically marketable approach for National to take. Mission Australia could well be directly employed to midwife the changes to New Zealand social service delivery, via its own public/private partnership with a Key-led government. At the very least, Mission Australia will be much cited as a model to emulate.

One super agency would enable a degree of political control over a sometimes compliant, sometimes feisty sector. Some NGOs would be able to swim with the tide. The degree of corporatisation that has already occurred among such groups as Presbyterian Support Services or ( even) at Auckland City Mission would enable them to adapt to the new reality, and to survive. Other groups may not be so flexible, or as fortunate.

What is driving this agenda, beyond mere ideology ? Well, a programme of tax reduction and smaller government cannot be seen to be cutting and running away from social services as a result. The next government needs to look engaged. Therefore, a cheaper model has to be found and implemented, one compatible with enhanced corporate and voluntary sector delivery. The language of charity (and a helping hand to those who have earned the right to it) will become the new norm. We will be hearing much less about needs, entitlements and the root causes of violence and poverty.

As Key indicated, his stance on sports funding is a model for what he has in mind for wider processes of government. Yes, some savings from cutting down on the bureaucratic ‘back office’ in sports funding will be shifted to schools, to help fund their sports activities, he promises. ( How and by what formula, who knows.) “ But also [there will be] funding [for] extra-curricular sports clubs, through either Regional Sports Trusts, or directly, through the clubs.”

Got the drift ? Direct funding to those peddling the services, rather than more operational funds for those currently at the educational coalface. Substitute ‘welfare delivery’ for sports. Think about church voluntary groups and profit driven ‘regional trusts’ having a more direct line to taxpayer funds. In future, will the government be interested in funding only the groups that are helping it to put a smilier face on social problems?

Right now, we need to know what co-ordinating structure Key has in mind. Basically, will a new agency be empowered to negotiate all of the social services contracts and dole out all the funds – and what role, if any, will Mission Australia be playing in such developments? As yet it is still unclear whether Key has told the Salvation Army, Presbyterian Support Services, Barnardos, Rape Crisis and Plunket etc anything about how he plans to manage the state’s business with the vulnerable sectors that those NGOs currently serve. They really should be asking him – because, as in most other policy areas, National is not telling us.