The Government's determination to tackle what Deputy Prime Minister Bill English terms "some of New Zealand's longest-running, most intractable social problems" is commendable.
Its modus operandi – linking state chief executives' bonuses to specific targets set by ministers – is an abdication of responsibility.
As Prime Minister John Key should know, targets are a double-edged sword. It is less than five years since Mr Key identified closing the economic gap with Australia as the number one target of an incoming National government. If his salary had been linked to the achievement of that goal, he wouldn't have earned a cent since shifting into the Beehive. Despite his best efforts, the gap has steadily widened thanks to the minerals booms that has enabled Australia to weather the global financial crisis better than any other Western economy.
To hold Mr Key accountable for the failings of the American and European bankers who precipitated the crisis would be somewhat nonsensical, but no more nonsensical than holding public service bosses accountable for decisions made by the Greek prime minister.
Yet that is effectively what the Government proposes to do by tying Social Development Ministry chief executive Brendan Boyle's salary to long-term beneficiary numbers and, to a lesser extent, by attaching Education Ministry chief executive Lesley Longstone's salary to NCEA pass rates, and Justice Ministry chief executive Andrew Bridgman's salary to crime rates.
Accountability is vital; individuals can, and do, make a difference. But, as Mr Key has discovered, it is not possible to divorce what happens in New Zealand from what happens outside. During the next few years, the single biggest influence on beneficiary rates is likely to be the global economy. If Europe sinks further into despondency, more jobs will go; if the European economy revives, job opportunities will increase.
If the Government wants Mr Boyle's ministry to prioritise the reduction of long-term benefit dependency – an excellent idea – it should tell him so, check to make sure he follows instructions and measure how effectively he deploys the resources at his command. But assessing the performance of chief executives against measures that are outside their control not only wastes time and effort, it also encourages departmental heads to game the system.
It would, for example, be a simple matter for Ms Longstone to boost early childhood participation rates to the levels demanded by ministers, but if the price of doing so is reducing the quality of early childhood education or deferring school maintenance, the costs will quickly outweigh the benefits. Similarly, Mr Bridgman could reduce the crime rate by revolutionising the way offenders are dealt with, but a more fail-safe approach would be to persuade the police to lay fewer charges.
The Government is right to stress its priorities, but the targets announced by Mr Key and Mr English are a distraction from the job at hand and a poor substitute for diligent ministerial oversight.
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