Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Guest post: The dumb insolence of bureaucrats

Guest post. Obviously Spider and I have views on housing but our multi-tasking just isn't that flash so we have posted this. We don't necessarily agree with the views expressed herein but it's a valuable contribution to the housing debate and better than anything you'll get in the Herald. Enjoy!
The best laid plans of politicians are often thwarted by bureaucrats who don’t share the same world view as their political masters. This is especially so for progressive or left wing governments which need to battle for policy supremacy with a bureaucracy which is often risk adverse and moderately conservative.  This battle is one-sided because this bureaucracy provides both the policy advice to politicians and delivers programmes on their behalf. Furthermore the scope of public policy advice is often pre-determined either by convention – such as with having an allegedly non-partisan professional public service - or by the legislative decree of previous governments such as with the Fiscal Responsibility Act, the State Services Act and the Reserve Bank Act. 

The constraints of convention are often argued as providing transparent government and a safeguard against 'unbridled power'. Under such rules, power is shared between the executive, legislature and judiciary so that the opportunities for politicians to meddle are limited.  Such a system might work if the partners in this cosy ménage a trios acted in a pluralistic and democratic way.  However, it is questionable that they do. 

A big problem with the framing of public policy by embedded legislative constraints is that, in New Zealand, these constraints are the codification of the neo-liberal ideology that has been a guiding force for our economic and social policy since the mid-1980s. For example, the Reserve Bank Act is simply an application of monetarist theory while the State Services Act is a manifestation of 'new public' managerialism. Under this framing any progressive government that seeks to address such quaint notions as social justice or environmental sustainability faces an uphill struggle to turn the basic ideological foundations of the State toward their ends. Yet such policy turnarounds are a normal part of the democratic process where the government has a sufficiently strong and clear mandate. Fortunately this has not been a problem for the ruling elites since the emergence and subsequent domination of neo-liberal economics under the Fourth Labour Government. Because only the main neo-liberal parties – National and Labour - have held power since then, the problem of a political agenda not matching the ruling paradigm has never arisen (in fact a recent Herald editorial explicitly refered to "the consensus between the two major parties on economic fundamentals").

But arguably more fundamental barriers to a truly progressive political agenda are the values, inclinations and prejudices of the mainly middle-class bureaucracy.  If the political agenda of the elected government does not match this group’s interests, then real change will be hard to achieve. Paradoxically, this is especially so where public servants might be expected to have some empathy for the public or communities they are supposed to serve. Regrettably, such empathy is often lacking especially within senior management of state bureaucracies which have been captured by managerialism and its focus on economic efficiency, hierarchy and managers as moral authority.  A great example of such lack of empathy is Housing New Zealand.
Housing New Zealand is presently going through a transformation as part of the government’s social housing reform agenda.
The government’s social housing reform programme is being rolled out with the Social Housing Reform Bill, now going through the select committee stage. This Bill looks to extend the subsidies presently only available to Housing New Zealand to so-called community housing providers in an effort to extend the provision of social housing beyond a state monopoly.

In response to this agenda Housing New Zealand itself began to change how it behaved toward tenants and those seeking housing. The number of households with a serious housing needs admitted to waiting lists  miraculously fell from around 5,000 in 2009 to 2,000 in 2012. The number of households actually housed fell from over 9,000 in 2008/09 to 7,000 in 2011/12.  All this happened while state houses were kept empty  or were demolished in high-needs places like Pomare and Glen Innes. It is simply not credible to claim that declining state house waiting lists represent a real decline in need when the housing shortage - especially in Auckland - gets worse by the month. It is difficult to know if this change in attitude had any political blessing although this seems unlikely given the lack of any political mileage in doing so.  As well, the government never tried to make such claims. To its credit Housing New Zealand now has a new Chief Executive and its attitudes appear to have softened recently.

A plausible explanation is one of bureaucratic belligerence bordering on dumb insolence. That is to say, Housing New Zealand’s management was working against the government’s reform agenda by embarrassing it with unhelpful outcomes which apparently are results of these reforms.

No doubt old liberals will label the Bill as privatisation by stealth or the end of public housing. Such claims wallow in a misplaced nostalgia that everything was just swell when Housing New Zealand was the only show in town picking up bigger and bigger subsidies from taxpayers and providing poorly maintained houses in suburbs and neighbourhoods which most New Zealanders avoided like the plague. The engagement of community enterprise in the delivery of the public services, such as with the social housing reforms, can of course be interpreted as the neo-liberal rolling back of the state. Such an interpretation has some merit although in examining alternatives we need to also understand the conservative and sometimes reactionary nature of state bureaucracies and the prospects of a progressive government being able to reform these.

It may be that our real opportunity to achieve social change does not lie with reforming bureaucracies but in building a stronger civil society which relies on local control and ownership of key social resources, and on goodwill and neighbourliness.