The Dominion-Post this morning had an interesting article (sadly not online) providing context to the current debate about police on traffic duty failing to respond to 111 calls. But rather than being about a focus on revenue gathering, as some would have it, the reason is rather more complicated: it's all to do with how the Police force are funded.
The 1984 Revolution and the passage of the State Sector and Public Finance Acts led to a new model of funding for government agencies in New Zealand. Where previously they'd been funded on "inputs" - how many people etc they needed - they were now funded on "outputs": what they were expected to achieve. This list of outputs is laid out in each agency's annual report and statement of intent, along with an amount allocated for each activity. The lists are very specific, and lay out exactly what services the government is "purchasing" from its agency, along with expected performance standards and how much each "purchase" will cost. So for example the Ministry of Health is funded for so many hip operations at such and such a cost each year, with an expectation that 99% (or whatever) of them will be successful (interestingly, the number funded is consistently below demand, which is why we have waiting lists... but I digress).
In the case of the police, a look at their 2004/2005 Statement of Intent shows that they are funded for a number of output classes, including "policy advice and ministerial servicing" (including answering OIA requests and providing answers to Parliamentary questions), "general crime prevention", "investigations", and the Road Safety Programme. The latter covers
the delivery of key strategic services such as highway patrol, speed and traffic camera operations, restraint device control, drink or drugged driver control operations, commercial vehicle investigation activity, and visible road safety enforcement
and is funded to the tune of $208 million plus GST. Among the services "purchased" are 350 - 400,000 infringement notices (speeding tickets) issued (up 50,000 on last year), 800 - 900,000 roadside breath tests, and attending 350 - 410 fatal accidents (interestingly, despite the oft-touted goal of "getting the road toll down", this is up 20 on last year). One measure of performance is an annual survey about how we the public judge the likelihood of being caught if we speed or drive drunk.
The problem is that departmental chief executives have extremely limited authority to transfer funding from one output class to another, meaning that the money is effectively "ring-fenced" and cannot be used for anything else. Hence the insistence by police managers that police on traffic duty ignore 111 calls unless it is a life-threatening situation: because the money or time cannot legally be used for another purpose.
While it may be tempting to allow police mangers more freedom to juggle competing priorities (and that seems to be the Police Association's position), that creates an accountability problem. How could we hold police managers to account if they decided to (say) ignore traffic enforcement completely in favour of other activities? If we give managers total authority and rely on Ministers to hold them to account, it simply means that managers will try and second-guess the Minister. One of the key ideas of the public sector reforms was to recognise this problem, and things like purchase agreements and output funding are intended to fix it by putting accountability where it belongs: on the Minister.
So, the only way this will change is to pressure the government. They decide the spending priorities, and they are accountable for them. But rather than getting them to reduce the focus on traffic enforcement in favour of other areas, we should be pushing for an across-the-board increase in police funding. The police have suffered starvation just like every other government department, and are expected to do too much with too little. The current debate over 111 calls is just a symptom of that problem.