The English and Bennett show - quietly making ripples

Finance Minister Bill English and State Services Minister Paula Bennett  - quietly revolutionising the public service
Chris Skelton/Fairfax NZ

Finance Minister Bill English and State Services Minister Paula Bennett - quietly revolutionising the public service

OPINION: 

During National's disastrous Northland by-election campaign, Paula Bennett was cadging rides around the electorate while many of her colleagues were being ferried around in their Crown limos.

Managing to hold on to that awareness of how things might look out there in middle New Zealand helps explain why Bennett's star has continued to rise, while those of others around her have waned. It's not as easy as it sounds after six years in a town where a chauffeur is always waiting just outside the door, and a visit from "the minister" can send a room full of public servants into conniptions.

It may be that Bennett's ability to stay grounded has something to do with the fact that Wellington's boffins probably hugely underestimated her in National's early days.

Bennett's flamboyant style certainly made waves when she first landed in Parliament; a Westie who was not above hamming things up with a touch of leopard skin and teetering heels, she was about as far away from the stereotypical Wellington policy wonk as you could get.

But it seems there was always an inner policy geek lurking beneath the surface.

Prime Minister John Key's appointment of Bennett to a hybrid mix of portfolios stretching across social housing, social policy and the state services has installed her as apprentice to Finance Minister Bill English in the quiet revolution he has been imposing on the public service.

The revolution is as far reaching as it is bold, and as it is risky; some of it so much so that it is starting to grab international attention.

In places like Pittsburgh, where they are trialling the "New Zealand model" , they use words like "pioneering" to describe English.

Here, where the revolution has been largely unheralded after years of grinding away in the background, it has made smaller ripples - even when the breadth and depth of the changes give lie to Opposition claims that the Key Government lacks a plan or a legacy.

There's a plan alright and while the payoffs could be huge, it is also high stakes.

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When headlines overseas liken the New Zealand model to pop culture film Minority Report, it gives you a sense of the scale of risk that National is taking.

Minority Report, the movie, is about predicting violent crime before it happens so that authorities can lock people up and throw away the key without the downside of crime actually having to take place first.

Minority Report New Zealand-style is about crunching the numbers to predict abuse, welfare dependency and a child's likely downward spiral into crime on the path to adulthood well before it happens. Where it gets controversial is the push to apply predictive modelling to newborns - meaning in some cases much greater intervention by the state when the modelling scores the baby's environment as high risk.

Big brother is watching? You bet. In fact, he is crucial to English and Bennett's plans.

National's vision to transform the public service rests entirely on the "information revolution" and its ability to drill down into the lives of the people behind the numbers in welfare, justice, housing and education in a way that has never been possible before.

As a research paper posted on the Ministry of Social Development website explains: "Under the proposal, [predictive risk modelling] tools would draw on existing administrative data to provide an estimate of the risk of future maltreatment. Where the risk score was above an agreed threshold, the child's details would be passed to a local Children's Team.

Depending on the assessment of the Children's Team, this might lead to outreach to the families of the children identified, and the offer of support and services".

Those children's teams would "target children whose level of risk is just below that which require a statutory care and protection response" the paper notes.

"The aim would be to prevent these children from requiring statutory services later on."

This is what the Government is calling the "investment approach" - directing money to areas of quantifiable risk - and that is what has been grabbing attention overseas.

In Pittsburgh, they are trialling predictive modelling to prioritise calls to an abuse hotline. If a call relates to a child with a high enough "score" it will be prioritised above those with a lower "score".

This is the high risk part.

As the MSD paper also notes, there is plenty of room for error. At risk children could be missed - or, just as likely, the system could identify children for intervention where no abuse is taking place.

Politically, both scenarios carry the sort of risk that make most public servants - and politicians - run a mile.

The message from English and Bennett in recent speeches, however, has been that risks are something they are prepared to take.

Data analytics have already enabled the Government to post some impressive numbers that English regularly trumpets.

For instance, using data from welfare, education, employment and housing agencies and the courts, officials were able to identify the most expensive welfare beneficiaries - children who had at least one close relative who had been previously reported to child safety authorities, been to prison and spent a long time on welfare.

The number crunchers discovered that by the age of 10, their likelihood of going to prison at some point in their life was 70 per cent. They also discovered that these kids were costing the state $1 million each - giving rise to English's description of them as "the million dollar babies".

The Government also cites figures like the 38 per cent reduction in youth crime since 2011; the 40 per cent drop in teenage solo parents on a benefit, and rising immunisation rates for Maori.

But there have also been failures; six months down the track, a youth unemployment programme that looked like it was having huge success getting long-term jobless into work is not looking quite so rosy after many of them drifted back onto the dole.

And the push to shunt more service delivery out to the private sector under the so-called "investment approach" raises the stakes even further.

It raises huge questions on the extent to which information can and should be shared across Government agencies and with private sector providers - an area which is still under debate.

It also exposes the Government to a higher risk level in relation to private sector failure and abuses of taxpayer money - think back to hip-hop tours and twilight golf, then magnify that by a hundred-fold when you are dealing with vulnerable children.

And it reopens the ideological battleground with Labour over private versus public service provision.

One of the major successes so far of the Key Government has been its ability to reframe that debate in a way that has carried the public along with it so far. That has been achieved by favouring a softly-softly approach over what English refers to as the "crash through" approach of the past. Focusing on doing what works, rather than ideology, in other words.

But public sentiment could change, particularly as the social sector changes start to pick up a head of steam. A run of bad headlines would play into Labour's hands in terms of reviving the "scary" connotations of the past.

Installing Bennett at English's side in his post-election reshuffle was a signal that Key is aware of those risks.

In her time as Social Development Minister, she succeeded where other National ministers have failed in the past at putting a softer face on its brand of "compassionate conservatism".

She has been a potent weapon for National in arguing the case that its carrot-and-stick approach to welfare has been more about improving lives than cost-cutting.

But her biggest selling job may still lie ahead.

 - Stuff

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