Thursday, April 08, 2010

Whanau Ora

Today the government released its long-awaited Whanau Ora report [PDF], into unified social services delivery for Maori. The report advocates a joined-up, whanau-centric mode of delivery for social services (an example is in the government's press-release here), funded by a dedicated appropriation overseen not by a public-service department, but by an independent trust. So, what to make of it?

On the positive side, the unified service delivery model could work (and there are definitely problems with people falling through the cracks between multiple agencies). We already contract out some social services where we think it might better meet people's needs, and Whanau Ora's use of contract agencies is no different from this. It deserves some sort of trial, at the least.

On the negative side, there are real privacy and human rights concerns here. One of the reasons for the silo mentality among delivery agencies is because (to pick a random example) how well a family's kids are doing at school is none of Housing New Zealand's damn business. Ditto your sexual history and the police. Whanau Ora would either share this information, or concentrate it in the hands of the single contact point. There are also concerns about the privacy and rights of individuals against members of their own families (the report recognises this in cases of pregnancy). This could easily turn into an Orwellian nightmare, in which every family has its own paternalistic dictator, acting with state power to make decisions based on their own moral views rather than the wishes and needs of the family.

Secondly, the scheme's "Whanau goals" are very prescriptive, to the point of social engineering. For example, it seeks to promote not just self-management, health, and participation in society, but also participation in te ao Maori and "Whanau cohesion". To point out the obvious, whether I speak to my mother is no business at all of the government. Neither is what culture you participate in. These things are great for people who want them, but they should not be dictated by the state.

The biggest problem, however, is governance. Using an independent trust will mean that policy advice and the management of the programme is deliberately and consciously divorced from public service norms of professionalism, transparency and accountability. It means the staff overseeing the scheme will not be bound by public service neutrality, that contracts will not be subject to the usual public service rules (freeing up space for "relational contracting", by which they mean favouring certain regular providers rather than having a level playing field), and their decisions, contracts and advice will not be subject to the Official Information Act (note that by contracting out actual delivery, service provision is already insulated from the jurisdiction of the Ombudsmen. WINZ has to be fair and reasonable; contracted services don't). And that is simply unacceptable.

With hundreds of millions (and potentially billions) of public money on the line, you would expect the government to adopt a cautious approach to such novel arrangements. You'd be wrong. They've already committed to the trust route, and appointed a board for it. National's promise to be careful with public money? Yeah, right.