Viewpoint: Social services – who should decide?

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After our look at Danish smart cities last week, Peter McKinlay brings and international perspective to social services comparing developments in New Zealand and England.

New Zealand and England have strikingly different approaches to the role which local government should play in the delivery of major social services. In what would probably look like paradise for English councils – at the moment anyway, New Zealand councils have virtually no responsibility for social service delivery. Instead, major social services are handled by government departments, or government established entities such as district health boards.

Despite this striking difference, there are some extraordinary similarities emerging over the difficulties in effectively designing, targeting and delivering social services.

Both jurisdictions are wrestling with the question of how to combine ‘efficiency’ with effectiveness – the right service for the right person in the right way and at the right time. For New Zealand observers it is fascinating to see the extent to which problems of siloed government persist despite the UK government’s expressed commitment to ‘localism’ and endeavours to get a more joined up approach to delivery through the series of initiatives from the local strategic partnerships of the early 2000s to community budgeting.

In New Zealand broadly the same problems have come through in a recent report by our Productivity Commission, More Effective Social Services.

Among the problems which the Commission identified, virtually all of which could be attributed indirectly or directly to silo-based management, were:

  • The existing system is not well suited to deal with the multiple and inter-dependent problems experienced by many of New Zealand’s most disadvantaged individuals and families;
  • Government agencies generally know too little about which services (or interventions) work well, which do not, and why;
  • Evaluation of many social services is currently absent or of poor quality, or not given enough weight in subsequent decision making;
  • Providers face weak incentives to experiment, and to share and adopt innovations;
  • Clients often perceive government processes as confusing, overly directive, and unhelpful;
  • Providers often perceive government processes as wasteful and disconnected from the real-world problems they struggle with.

In both jurisdictions too often problems are exacerbated by the way in which governments have sought efficiencies through the way contracts with external providers are constructed. There is an emphasis on scale and least cost per unit of service, rather than an emphasis on outcomes and the cost of delivering (and failing to deliver) those outcomes.

In England, this problem has been well recognised with local government service provision, for example, in a report last year by the Institute of Public Policy Research with the support of Nesta on the theme of Next-Generation Social Services (the development of e-marketplaces) which commented:

Procurement models reward price above quality – a fact most starkly illustrated by the closed-door auctions that some local authorities run on individual lots of care, which in almost all cases award contracts to the provider that offers the lowest price.

It’s pleasing to see that the problems of outsourcing generally are now being recognised with the current debate in the columns of the Guardian including a very useful contribution from the chief executive of Locality

What’s beginning to stand out in New Zealand is the role which local authorities can play as advocates on behalf of their communities in the debate about making social services work for the people they are intended to benefit.

One thing which really helps the New Zealand discussion, and should similarly assist discussion in England, is the ability to compare and contrast between the two different jurisdictions. The fact that the two have very different systems for the delivery of social services strengthens the case that common problems with delivery are more fundamental than simply system design. Instead, it becomes easier to make the case for questioning the traditional top down approach to the design, targeting and delivery of social services and looking instead for models which recognise the need to devolve decision-making as close to communities as possible, and draw on the knowledge networks and commitment which partnership with communities can provide. The developments in England around devolving health and social care to new combined authorities can perhaps be a model for the future in both countries? New Zealand will be watching closely.

Peter McKinlay is Executive Director of McKinlay Douglas in New Zealand.

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