Linking social services to better do our dirty work

The systems were in place. The failure was by a person. There will be more such failures. People are frail.

So more children will be killed, like the Masterton pair, or maimed or damaged. It is a (ghastly) fact of life in our and every society.

And at each such failure the media and politicians will line up to throw rocks at the public service, not thinking that they, too, make mistakes.

No one will ask if eliminating violence is do-able. The modern sensitised society demands it be done to relieve guilt and anger.

So we now ask the state to do far more than we would have dared ask a generation ago. National’s Roger Sowry thought in the 1990s the state could break the “cycle of family violence”. At best it can interfere and ameliorate.

When the under-resourced Child, Youth and Family Service fails to stop every case of violence, we throw rocks. It is a marvel anyone wants to work there. Even more of a marvel is that anyone would want to be chief executive and cop the rocks for inevitable staff errors.

Am I being too forgiving? Possibly, in this sense: that systems can fail for two other reasons than individual human frailty; if resources are inadequate or if the organisational culture is inappropriate, wrong or rotten. In the second case the CEO is rightly to blame.

And there has been a cultural inhibition to effective social services. A “silo” culture has meant that often several, sometimes numerous, state agencies have worked separately, at times counterproductively, with malfunctioning families.

Sowry tried to break down the silo culture as Social Services Minister up to 1999 and had some success. His successor, Steve Maharey, has carried that on. Public service bosses have worried at it for some years.

One of the smartest, Peter Hughes, who heads Maharey’s Ministry of Social Development, is driving a decentralisation designed, in part, to join up social agencies at local level.

Ask yourself what is the government’s face in most towns and community centres. Not the post offices. Richard Prebble saw them off, though Jim Bolger has opened some on the back of Kiwibank. The state’s ubiquitous face is that opiate of the downtrodden, Work and Income, doler of benefits.

In about 60 Work and Income offices Hughes has made space for other state agencies, for example, the Inland Revenue Department (family tax credits, etc) and the Housing Corporation: a one-stop shop where you do much of your social needs business with the state.

Hughes has also linked his staff with local mayors and officials (armed with their new “power of general competence”, conferred last year), non-government community agencies (which often generate useful ideas besides delivering services) and iwi.

Hughes has devolved considerable autonomy, including discretionary control over some funds, to 12 regional commissioners and parked a policy wonk with each, to plug the commissioner into head office policy thinking and make head office analysts take into account local realities and insights.

In behind the commissioners are regional social development managers whose job is to get a social development focus at the regional and local level — potentially (though Hughes is coy on this) a match, as regional lead agency for all state social agencies, to Jim Anderton’s Ministry of Economic Development (MED).

An aim of this approach is to break down silos within the social sphere. Similarly with MED in the economic sphere. And, logically, the environment.

But walls need to be melted between the spheres, too. If new economic activity starts up, Hughes wants the workers coming off that region’s unemployment rolls, not from another region. Conversely, Hughes can’t get unemployed into work in a region if the jobs don’t materialise for lack of transport and infrastructure, as in Northland.

So breaking down silos is a complex business — unimaginably so to bosses of compartmentalised private-sector businesses who have just one line of ultimate accountability (to shareholders) compared with public sector bosses’ two, to ministers and end-users.

Moreover, efficiency is not enough. That was the 1990s focus. Now effectiveness is the focus. Hughes wants eventually to measure his commissioners against social outcomes. Multi-agency cooperation and linkages are part of that drive for effectiveness.

Cross-links should be enhanced by legislation due soon to more easily spread funding across activities. And next year’s budget might, if the money keeps rolling in, produce a simplified benefit system, so families in difficulty can get what they need more readily and Work and Income staff can be case managers instead of calculators of which bits of the befuddling cocktail of benefits are available to a dependent.

There will still be child bashing and murders. But over time the state might better help malfunctioning families and so society — even maybe thereby reduce the guilt and anger so we don’t feel such need to throw rocks at the public servants doing our dirty work.