Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Gibberish, cynical, a stunt..yep, all of the above

Always keen to show the public what a waste of space the public sector is except when it's dishing out welfare to large corporates and Canterbury farmers, the government has announced a range of targets it expects the public sector to meet by 2017. As others have noted, that's two elections away, and a bunch can happen between now and then. But suppose the government really is taking this seriously, what might the long-suffering public expect, apart from the increasing use of German-style capitalisation of nouns in official government press releases?
 The first target is to get 23,000 long-term welfare beneficiaries off benefits by 2017. At the risk of sounding churlish, if the government and Treasury were capable of delivering on that 170,000 jobs they said would be created in both the 2010 and 2011 budgets, then getting that group of long-term beneficiaries into paid work wouldn't be a problem. Heck, they probably wouldn't even have to try. But this is an economy haemorrhaging jobs at a scary rate, with no new jobs being created to plug the gap. Under these circumstances, moving people off benefits will mean turfing them into the street with no income. Don't think that will happen? Well, it's been happening at ACC for some time. The difference is that when ACC boots people off the books because they're deemed sufficiently able-bodied to be a carpark attendant then the next step down the social support ladder is welfare. Where do people go when they've been kicked off welfare in order to meet a random target? 
The other target that seems to have got the blogosphere quite excited is the one to reduce the incidence of rheumatic fever by two-thirds. The official release quite rightly notes rheumatic fever is preventable and more likely to occur in areas of high deprivation.
Yet despite the Associate Minister for Social Development Tariana Turia admitting that children living in cold overcrowded homes are most likely to get rheumatic fever, the State Services Commission website reveals this serious public health issue is to be dealt with by a programme of throat swabs, raising awareness (that fave of governments that don't want to actually spend any money), and that other long-term public sector pipe dream, "working across government agencies". Tellingly, it's not clear who will be responsible for meeting this target. In reality, it should be Housing New Zealand. Rheumatic fever rates will not reduce as long as children live in those cold, overcrowded houses Minister Turia talks about. Who takes the rap for failure to meet the target will be important to ensure no perverse incentives are put in place to deny children the treatment they need.
Immunisation...yada yada...Immunisation rates are constantly improving and have been for some years now. The biggest barrier is cost or the perception of cost, and middle class mums who think vaccinations will give their darlings autism. Still, it's a target already on the way to being achieved. Putting it in the to-do list is just fluffing the list up.
The goal of 98% of children having attended early childhood education is more problematic. New Zealand has a private system of early childhood education, and it is rife with market failure, which is the biggest contributor to children not getting ECE. Children in rural areas, especially low-income areas, and in low-decile suburbs in urban areas have the least access to ECE facilities (some South Auckland 'burbs have about half the number of ECE places that they need). Despite the State Services Commission talking about engaging hard-to-reach children, the problem is not one of engagement (although there will always be families that can't/won't engage), it is one of availability and access. Improving ECE rates will require actual expenditure in low-income urban and rural areas short of facilities. Until the government is prepared to direct investment to ensure this happens, this goal will not be met.
The target of reducing the number of assaults on children is interesting. The blurb talks about halting the 10 year rise in the assaults on children. What it forgets to mention is that the reporting of cases to Child Youth and Family has changed in that time, and this accounts for a large proportion of the increase in recorded assaults. The graph on the SSC website shows the number of assaults rising sharply upwards in perpetuity, but there is no evidence this will occur, and some reason to think it will not. But look carefully, and you'll notice that the target is to reduce the number of substantiated assaults on children. Loyal public servants faced with pay cuts for not reducing the number of substantiated assaults will...simply stop substantiating them. This will help achieve the target but puts in place an incentive to stop children getting the help and support they need.
But the most cynical are the targets for reducing recorded crime. Crime rates have been trending downwards for some years, helped along by the fact that we have an ageing population and the middle-aged are just less likely to be involved in crime. But not all crime has not trended downwards - thanks to campaigns such as It's Not OK reporting for some types of crime has increased. This means the campaigns have been a success. Setting targets to reduce reported crime means the police have an incentive to try to persuade people to not report in the first place or (as already happens) simply not answer calls that report non-violent crimes such as burglaries and car theft. The police have already said that domestic violence incidents will no longer be recorded. Will the targets take account of this change in data recording? Or will it be used to help meet the targets?
So yes, it's hard to disagree with others who have labeled the targets in the terms in the header. The targets are either already on the way to being achieved, completely miss the bigger picture, or set in place incentives to shaft the general public. They're not about "better public services", they're about less for less. And worse, our vulnerable kids are being used as props to promote this, well, gibberish. No mention of an actual, real live economic plan, no mention of dealing with the shortage of good housing, and no concrete measures to improve people's living standards. It's almost another distraction.