Government agencies 'inventing numbers' to meet targets, says report

Government agencies are coming under pressure from politicians to meet public service targets, the Salvation Army says.

Government agencies are coming under pressure from politicians to meet public service targets, the Salvation Army says.

Government agencies are "inventing" new numbers and changing the definitions of targets to make their performance seem better, a damning report says.

The Salvation Army says the organisations feel under pressure from the Government to come up with favourable results, creating an attitude where they "find any reason to celebrate success or progress", regardless of their original goals.

The charitable organisation's State of the Nation report attacks the ways in which government agencies appear to be using targets, and the numbers behind them, in a "less than straightforward and reliable manner".

The report says agencies have been using a number of "subtle and ingenious approaches" to improve their performance against targets.

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They include changing the definitions behind indicators to make results appear better, "inventing new numbers" that are difficult to verify, and changing the way figures are reported without improving the reliability of information provided.

"This can cause us to slip into a 'moveable feast' mentality, where we find any reason to celebrate success or progress, even though we have lost our sense of the purpose behind it all."

The report says the "political capital" invested by the Government in meeting targets, such as its Better Public Services goals, puts pressure on public sector managers to come up with favourable results.

Previous calls for greater transparency had been met by a "quite disingenuous" government response, with claims that the public, rather than auditors, should scrutinise the targets it had set.

The report cites Child Youth and Family's statistics for child abuse and neglect as an example of particular concern, with a large gap between its recorded cases of abuse in 2014-15 and those recorded by police.

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Changes to the way CYF investigates allegations mean "there is no way of knowing if the background level of abuse or neglect is falling, rising or staying the same", the report says.


The report's author, Salvation Army social policy analyst Alan Johnson, said the organisation supported the idea of targets, but not the way they were being reported.

"The problem you really have is there's no independence of how they're reported: the agency responsible for the targets are also responsible for measuring them and then reporting on them."

While some government figures could be trusted, Johnson said others had "a bit of a spin on them" which would undermine public confidence in all the numbers.

Government agencies should make their targets subject to audit so there was more transparency about the methodology behind them, Johnson said.

The report outlines a number of areas in which New Zealand is improving, such as a decline in youth offending and teen pregnancy rates, wage and job growth, and a drop in criminal offending.

It also singles out a number of areas of concern, including the lack of progress in addressing child poverty,  a record high prison population, and ballooning house prices in some areas of New Zealand.


Labour leader Andrew Little said the report was a "damning indictment" of the Government, and showed it was "deliberately manipulating statistics" around poverty and crime to meet targets rather than addressing the underlying problems.

"It is appalling that, as the report says, enormous pressure is being put on public sector managers to go along with their agenda.

"They are targets designed to be met, not to change anything."

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei said the Salvation Army highlighted serious doubts about the Government's "much-trumpeted achievements" for children and others, such as with CYF.

"No amount of massaging of the numbers is going to make the truth go away – that this Government's decisions are hurting those who need the most help," Turei said.

Child Poverty Action Group social security spokesman Mike O'Brien said the Government's deliberate decision not to act for the poorest children and their families could only be described as a moral and economic failure. 

"Child poverty is, then, clearly a low priority for this government."

Unicef NZ national advocacy manager Deborah Morris-Travers said the Salvation Army report raised serious concerns about the reliability of information generated by government agencies to report on issues central to children's wellbeing, like child abuse.


Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said: "This is the first time any government has set public targets to be measured against, and we are moving in the right direction in many areas."

Tolley said the "unfounded" allegations about CYF figures were disappointing, and the Government was not trying to "paint a rosy picture" of child abuse statistics.

"The stats are dreadful, which is why I am completely overhauling CYF and rolling out children's teams."

The difference in child abuse statistics between CYF and police were because they measured different things, she said.

CYF's statistics related to cases investigated by the agency with a substantiated finding of abuse, while police statistics related to offence proceedings under the Crimes Act, which did not necessarily involve a complaint to CYF or any involvement by the agency.

"For example, an assault on a child which didn't involve a parent or caregiver would not be investigated by CYF if there were no ongoing care and protection issues."

Tolley said the Salvation Army should make available any evidence it had that CYF was not sufficiently investigating an allegation of child abuse.


* Declining teenage pregnancy rates
* Reduction in infant mortality rates
* Falling rates of youth offending
* Growth in jobs and incomes
* Drop in criminal offending

* "Sharp rise" in criminal reoffending rates
* Little progress in reducing child poverty
* Record levels of prisoner numbers, imprisonment rates increasing
* Little change to unemployment, static income inequality
* Rising house prices across Auckland and New Zealand

 - Stuff

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