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social investment: something for a coalition agreement?

Written by Peter McKinlay on September 27th, 2017.      0 comments

This blog argues that any coalition agreement to form a government following the recent election, whatever the combination of parties, must include agreement to revisit one of the basic assumptions of the National led government's social investment strategy. This strategy has been one of the flagship policies of the National led government. It is premised on the assumption that a combination of data integration and data  analytics can identify people in need of social services and determine how best to intervene.

Formally the policy is indifferent as between different options for service provision,  with the cabinet definition including an emphasis on "moving funding to the most effective services irrespective of whether they are provided by government or non-government organisations."  However, and this is crucial, decisions on what constitute the most effective services are clearly intended to be taken centrally. There appears to be relatively little understanding of the importance which other jurisdictions attach to the role of communities in helping meet the needs of people in need of some form of assistance.

In part, this is simply about the ability to tap into local knowledge and networks. In part, and perhaps more importantly, it's very much about the potential for communities acting voluntarily  (not always in the formal NGO sense but as friends, neighbours, family and other affinal roles). It's co-production of support services for people who need assistance to cope with living at home, it's developing ideas of what might work locally to help meet need, or improve the quality of life - as with the development of dementia cafes in England's Wiltshire Council.

The London based think tank, the Royal Society for the Arts, provides an example of what is now a very common theme in research dealing with governance, administration and the design and delivery of public services; the importance of working in partnership with communities. Two recent examples illustrate this.

The first is a 2016 report, Changing the Narrative:a new conversation between the citizen and the state available at: https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/changing-the-narrative-a-new-conversation-between-the-citizen-and-the-state.

This report sees the task ahead of governance in these terms  "Just as the transformation of our national infrastructure in the 19th century required the spread of new institutions we need now the emergence of a new democratic and social infrastructure, which enables citizens to be the architects and builders of the future we want. As Deloitte LLP so eloquently put it “Amid this challenging recalibration, a sector that is built around the citizen, makes the most of its talent, takes the fullest advantage of technology, engages partners to best effect and maximises its value for the taxpayer is worth pursuing.” "

The second is a 2017 report, Citizens and Inclusive Growth, which builds on the work of the RSA's Inclusive Growth Commission (The report is available at https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/citizens-and-inclusive-growth).
It's interest is in how to develop policies for economic growth which benefit all citizens. Again, the emphasis is on involvement with the report observing "It follows that inclusive growth goals (combining social and economic objectives) are likely to only be achieved when those who benefit from the strategies are included in their design. Our research therefore builds on the principle that an inclusive economy is predicated on citizen participation. Citizens should both benefit from the economic opportunities provided by growth, but also participate in influencing the policies, strategies and programmes associated with economic growth."

Similar findings can be found in a very wide range of research and from a number of different jurisdictions. There is a growing awareness that social interventions cannot simply be imposed from above, no matter how well informed by data. They need also to be shaped in collaboration with the communities  within which those interventions will be delivered. The argument is not just one of the importance of local democracy, and of delivering policy in ways which communities see as legitimate. It's also very much about drawing on the resource and knowledge of communities. Indeed, given  the challenges which New Zealand's communities now face, it's virtually a no-brainer to argue that without this kind of  collaboration New Zealand risks not only a continuance of the 'wicked problems' social investment is intended to resolve but also the loss of the potential community input which a collaborative approach would enable.

There is a related issue as well. in other jurisdictions it's increasingly common for data aggregation and data analytics to be used  not just to develop top-down interventions, but to enable 'community conversations' to share understandings about local needs and challenges, and collaborate in developing solutions. The evidence is not just that this works. It also increases the legitimacy of governments at all levels, and can result in quite significant savings.

None of this is to dismiss the basic objective underpinning the social investment strategy of using evidence to improve performance. Rather, it is to argue that this is just one of a number of approaches which need to be used together and that working collaboratively with communities is at least as important.

Finally, the evidence is also strong that working collaboratively with communities needs to be led and facilitated by local government. As the RSA states in the Changing the Narrative report  " it is actually the local state rather than the national state that is best positioned to re-negotiate its relationships with citizens, communities and businesses. Potentially at least, local government operates at a scale of accountability, with a degree of accessibility, and with a sensitivity to identity and diversity that it would be hard for the central state to match."



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