Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Police underfunding: the legacy of the 90's

Like DPF, I'm outraged to hear that the police are sending letters to victims of crime telling them that their cases will not be investigated. Unlike DPF, I'm willing to lay the blame squarely where it belongs: with the National government of the 90's. Like our schools and hospitals, the police were subjected to the "shrinking cap" during the 90's. In an effort to reduce government expenditure relative to GDP (and fund tax cuts for the rich), departmental budgets were not increased to keep pace with increased costs or inflation. Instead, core departments - such as the police - were expected to do more and more with less and less. The result was a "hollowing out", a loss of experienced staff, and a decline in the level of service offered to the public. In the case of hospitals, it meant longer and longer waiting lists. In the case of the police, it meant cases such as burglaries being dropped due to being "low priority". And in both cases, the people who suffered were not those who were driving the changes (and enjoying those tax breaks), but ordinary people who couldn't get a hip operation or find out who had stolen their TV.

This sort of damage cannot be repaired overight. Instead, it requires a sustained increase in funding to make up the lost ground. Labour has delivered to some extent - police funding has increased by over $120 million, or roughly 5% in real terms - but when things like the above are happening, it clearly still has some way to go.

As for the right, I find their complaints on the issue fairly hypocritical. They made the mess in the first place, yet have consistently opposed the increases in government spending required to clean it up. Worse, they actively promote a return to the "sinking cap" and further attempts to wring "efficiencies" out of public services (including the police) by deliberate underfunding. So, how would they fix the problem again...?


At least they are being honest about it. Frankly thats a huge improvement.

Posted by Genius : 3/29/2005 03:02:00 PM

It appears to me, from afar, that the Police may be making a pig's ear of their management of the place, and their reported failings are not entirely attributable to under-funding. That said, it is true that the National Governments of the 1990s savagely cut the budgets of Government Departments, including the Police, and continued to do so way beyond the point at which the "fat" had been squeezed out. We should not forget that razor gangs first started under Roger Douglas, but it was the Nats - and Ruth Richardson and Bill Birch in particular - with a sycophantic and activist Treasury giving untested, uncontestable, slash and burn, "policy advice" that dry old number crunchers like Bill Birch, and closed-minded Ministers (Ruth Richardson notable among them, but there were many others) wanted to hear. I have no doubt that the legacy of those Treasury raping and pillaging days remains, not only in the Police but in many other Departments also, despite the continuing efforts of Helen Clark's government to rectify the damage.

I speak with some authority on this, not so much in respect of the Police - though I witnessed at close quarters what was happening to them as it was happening to the Department I was involved with. I have strong memories of the marauding raids on the departmental Vote carried out year after year by junior Treasury officials whose advice Richardson, Birch and Creech (and their lesser colleagues) always accepted as the absolute truth, the adversarial nature of the process in which these officials imposed their own views about what would be in and what would be out of the departmental budget, the fiercely antagonistic Cabinet Committee process - with officials usually kept outside of the meeting room while the great minds inside made decisions often based entirely on the Treasury advice (a practice - not having senior officials in to address the Committee - begun under Lange), and the consequences and stress for departmental management which then had to pick up the pieces, enter yet another round of restructuring, make more staff redundant, demand more work for the same pay from those who remained, be hammered by the media for perceived failures that took no account of the severe demands being made in the name of "efficiency".....and so it goes on.

The wonder of it all was that so many high quality Public Service managers kept at it and didn't simply walk away from the long hours, the stress, the sheer negativity of it all.

Although I am not a Labour voter by inclination, and as I have noted the rot actually started under a Labour Government, I do agree that the Helen Clark Governments deserve credit for restoring the funding of public services at least some way towards the levels at which they should be. A lesson they appear to have learned is that squeezing the life out of a Government Department in the mistaken belief that it will somehow make it more efficient, is in the long run futile, destructive, and ignorant of the consequences. Strangulation as an incentive to make a Department perform better has some demonstrable downsides, demise of the patient being one, and is no substitute for a somewhat longer-term, but ultimately more effective, strategy that insists on effective accountability and management systems - and insists that they be made to work.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/30/2005 01:36:00 AM

I can't quite remember why Richardson had to cut the budget... can anyone remember? What was the name of the party running the preceding Government? What happened to the BNZ again? Can anyone remember?

Posted by Antarctic Lemur : 3/31/2005 07:26:00 PM

You can argue economic mismanagement either way. It was Labour who pumped in close to a billion when Brierly had control of the BNZ (later fully privatised under Bolger). It was National (and Bill Birch as Minister of Energy) who pumped money into the six "Think Big" projects that never made any profit and, according to Treasury analysis, ended up with the country more than a billion poorer. Perhaps Ruth had Bill's thinking big in mind when she slashed and burned.

Posted by Anonymous : 4/01/2005 01:47:00 AM