27 July 2006


First of all, apologies to anyone inconvenienced by my being sick this week.
Anyway, this week I thought I'd draw your attention to the numbers of people on benefits in NZ. You can find recent stats on MSD's Website. The good news is basically that 'The number of clients receiving a main benefit at the end of June decreased from 354,240 to 280,299 between 2001 and 2006' (to quote from one of the MSD fact sheets). By 'main benefits' they mean the income-tested working-age benefits, especially unemployment, DPB, sickness, invalids', widows' etc.
The main reason for the decline in numbers is low unemployment - making it easier to keep people off benefits, or move those on benefits back into employment. An opposite trend, though, has been rising numbers on sickness and invalids benefits. This is driven by demographic ageing, a rise in age of eligibility for the public pension, and deinstitutionalization in mental health.
So, what happens when unemployment rises again? Obviously benefit rolls increase too. But worse: The new Working for Families policies make the assistance to families with jobs much more generous than to those without jobs. So, now, if you lose your job as a family breadwinner, the impact is that much worse if you end up on any form of state assistance (including ACC, if you were injured at work). 'Making work pay' also makes losing your job much more of a penalty.

20 July 2006

In search of excellent English

The State Services Commission has recently released a State of the Development Goals Report 2006. The purpose of these goals is to help lift the performance of the state services so that they deliver better results for government and for New Zealanders. For example, they aim to improve co-ordination across services, and to make them more accessible – all of which I’m sure is a good thing. And worth having a look at.

Forgive me if I get on a hobby-horse here, but the one thing that I do not like about this (and many similar governmental policy documents) is the misuse of the English language. So, for example, the document tells us that state services will have ‘a strong commitment to constant learning in pursuit of excellence’ (p. 9) – a cliché inspired by the 1982 text ‘In search of excellence’ by Peters and Waterman. As a public servant, if you are one, you will be ‘committed to delivering excellence’ (p. 11), in case you needed to know that. This reminds me of the perpetual misuse of ‘excellence’ in educational institutions and their related policy documents, such as the Tertiary Education Commission’s 2002 report on the Performance-Based Research Fund, aka Investing in Excellence.

Now, what does it mean ‘to excel’? It means to surpass others, to be superior or outstanding.

So, by definition, only a few can perform ‘excellently’ at any one task – or, alternatively, most people can excel at only a very few things, and probably not all of the time. The trouble is that, nowadays, every government department, every university, every hospital is required to be excellent – all of the time – as a matter of policy. So, either we are to achieve the statistically impossible feat of all being well above average, all at once; or, the word 'excellence' no longer means what the dictionary says it means, but instead now means merely ‘good enough, on average’, or perhaps just ‘mediocre’. What do you think?

13 July 2006

Living Standards

Well, if you ask me, the big news in public policy in NZ this week was the release of the latest NZ Living Standards Report (2004). This is a study of economic hardship based on a survey of household consumption, as distinct from the usual income-based surveys. The first one was in 2001. It applies an economic living standards index, and classifies households into 7 categories of ‘restricted’ or ‘comfortable’ living standards (1 being the most severely restricted). The full report gives breakdowns into relevant social variables. Now, the Ministry has, in its press release, chosen to focus on the relationship between ‘life shocks’ (such as divorce, personal injury, etc.) and economic hardship, and the NZ Herald dutifully reproduced this particular party line without any critical analysis. Meanwhile, TV One focused on the percentages of Maori and Pacific Islands peoples in the most restricted categories (as if that were news). But, the most scandalous revelation to be found in this survey is the rate at which dependent children under 18 (who have no, or little, control over household income and expenditure) live in ‘restricted’ households, especially when one compares this with the living standards of the elderly in New Zealand. Check it out and judge for yourself. If you have a special interest in child poverty and the Working for Families policy, I have an article on that subject – in hard copy only, sorry – that I can post to you.

06 July 2006

Traffic Fines

There’s been a lot of fuss lately in the press about claims that police officers have targets or quotas of traffic-offence fines. Now, I’m not going to join the debate about whether or not this is so. But there is an important principle that underlies the disquiet that the public feel about this issue. The power to impose a fine for breaking the law obviously derives from the basic powers of the Sovereign. The decision to issue a ticket is an exercise of justice, even though on a fairly mundane level. But the public reasonably expect the exercise of justice to be performed (ideally) impartially, even if perfect impartiality is not fully realizable. It seems wrong to us if this task is treated as a mere job that can be controlled by performance targets or quotas. We would get especially upset if there were pay incentives for meeting certain traffic-fine targets, especially if measured in dollars-worth of revenue, as it would destroy the possibility of being treated impartially as a citizen before the law. It may be OK to structure targets and incentives into the remuneration and performance criteria of a commercial salesperson, but such a technique seems quite inappropriate in the context of law-enforcement. (This is a matter relevant to one of the 724 essay questions, by the way).

Such targets or incentives would be (in principle) almost as bad as bribes issued to influence the decision made by a judge.

On the other hand, it seems reasonable also, from a management point of view, to keep some kind of account of the numbers of tickets issued in relation to the amount of time spent patrolling the roads. If there were none, or very few, being issued, we would wonder if the officers were doing their job of enforcing the law. If the Police had no quantitative criteria for officers, it would be harder to manage their allocation of time as a workforce.

Somewhere in the middle there’s a happy medium, but unfortunately this particular debate has been caught up in political point-scoring. What’s your view?