Tackling the unfolding public policy mess after 2023

Dr Bryce Wilkinson
NZ Herald
15 September, 2022

The next incoming government will need to do its policy thinking beforehand if it is to tackle the current policy mess effectively. It will face serious problems in housing, health, education, social welfare, and environmental and planning laws, just to mention the biggest areas.

That government needs to do its thinking in advance because the public sector does not look capable of doing it, and the three-year election cycle is short.

In the late-1980s, Treasury briefings for an incoming government sought to identify policy problems, provide a framework for thinking about them and list high-level options. Doing that well required both technical expertise and deep specific knowledge.

A high point in this category was Treasury's 1987 briefing. A whole volume of the 295-page report was devoted to education. Its framework is as relevant now as it was then.

Treasury's other volume covered everything else. It comprised 471 pages. One section was on the role and limits of government, a topic I have not seen Treasury address in the last two decades. A thoughtful and insightful chapter discussed Treaty of Waitangi issues.

Those days are gone. Treasury's briefing to its incoming Minister of Finance in 2020 was a mere 54 pages. Only eight pages had a policy context. The Ministry of Education's 2020 briefing for its Minister was a mere 28 pages. Neither briefing identified lack of literacy and numeracy as a problem.

Fearing this neglect, the New Zealand Initiative published its own briefing in 2020, Its 50-page Roadmap for Recovery: Briefing to the Incoming Government included chapters on employment issues, fiscal (and monetary policy) priorities and productivity priorities. It included 26 key policy recommendations.

Government agencies are obviously still giving policy analyses and advice on issues that attract ministerial attention. But I am not aware of where anyone can access in a single document, updated three-yearly, anything equivalent to the overviews of the later 1980s.

A public agency that does not have a coherent framework for assessing current and future difficulties is a reactive and drifting agency. If it does not really know how it is thinking about things, the public cannot know either. Being in a fog matters.

From my outsider's perspective, the public sector seems short of capacity and interest at senior management level in serious policy analysis. Multiple layers of ineffectual senior management, swollen public relations teams and conflicting objectives are part of the problem.

Advocacy of agendas based on gender, race and the Treaty are pervasive. Yet, most pressing issues, from low productivity growth to illiteracy, affect all races and genders. All can benefit from better remedies.

Government has got too big and ineffectual in too many areas. Many agencies have lost sight of what the problem is with voluntary provision that justified their existence.

Agencies are not going to call their own existence into question. Few if any will offer ways to turn provision over to the private sector or cut their budgets.

Proper evaluation of government programmes may be more of a threat than a benefit to an agency. Government might not want to know either. In education, resistance to proper evaluation and greater parental choice is entrenched.

So, what are some of the significant issues the next government needs to be well-prepared for?

New Zealanders need more and better housing. As successive reports by the New Zealand Initiative and others have pointed out, land for housing must be freed up, and local authority incentives to permit development strengthened. This Government has done a bit to help, but not enough.

Environmental and planning law is part of the problem. It fails to confront objectors with the cost to the community of forgone development. Other people need houses and jobs. The Government's outlined reform proposals do not address the fundamental problem. It is hard to be hopeful that the detailed proposals will be any better.

Mental health support is not working for many. Health professionals are overloaded and the new governance arrangements are ill-timed and ill-justified. The concept of dividing New Zealanders into "priority populations" is deeply divisive. Group boundaries are ill-defined and to privilege group membership is to deny equal treatment for equal need.

The New Zealand Initiative's recent report, Every life is worth the same - The case for equal treatment, explained why the priority population concept treats those in a priority group as being of greater worth. It also violates long-accepted concepts of equity.

Restoring the principle of treating all people in the same circumstances equally, regardless of race, creed, gender, or religion is necessary both for better health outcomes overall and for civil society.

In education, even the Government is embarrassed by the state of its polytechnic reforms. The problem of lack of literacy and numeracy remains a major unsolved concern. Successive reports by the New Zealand Initiative have advocated teaching pupils to read by mapping the speech sounds they already know to letters and numbers. The existing "whole language" system of teaching reading is failing too many kids. Government is not indifferent, but the issue needs more urgent and decisive action.

In welfare, the ongoing human and fiscal cost is enormous. Surely much more can be done to help people back to independent self-sufficiency.

A rigorous welfare spending programme evaluation is needed to prove which programmes really work. Reports by the New Zealand Initiative have supported the now-lapsed social investment approach, including social investment bonds.

These issues are challenging. An ill-prepared government could soon find itself adrift, rudderless.

National and Labour will let us all down if they leave it to after the 2023 general election to think hard about how to best address such problems. Rebuilding public sector capability needs to be a priority.

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