Does the poverty package have design merit?
Bill English is utterly correct when he says that what government must do is put children and families at the centre and then organise services and interventions accordingly. To know how well their budget package addresses this complex problem you have to have a grasp of the details.
Sometimes politics gets in the way. 'From the right' political commentator Matthew Hooten sees the increase in benefits as part of a fundamental change in direction for New Zealand away from market driven norms that have ruled since the radical reform of the 80’s. If you are of a more left persuasion you will be suspicious of the intent and looking for the fishhooks and the claw backs.
A design view should avoid both of these distortions, see the insights clearly and be open to good innovation regardless of its origin.
Return on investment
Finance Minister Bill English talked on National radio about the huge lifetime costs of children who fail to launch into full, free, independent adult lives and remain a burden on the state. He also said that there is an analysis tool developed which can identify children likely to fail - highly accurately and ahead of time. From his finance perspective he states the virtue of small early investment avoiding large long term costs.
The design questions then are; how well does the package target those children most at risk; will it be effective at avoiding the long term, large costs such children place on the state; will it change their trajectories?
To launch fruitful adult lives children need to be nurtured physically and emotionally from before birth. They need to be sheltered, loved, fed, clothed, and supported to be healthy as well as healed when ill. They need to have good pre schooling, achieve at school, and gain life skills through tertiary training and or work.
Money is a reason why some children do not receive these essentials. Government analysis states that those children with parents on benefits long term are where the greatest numbers of those missing out reside. It’s difficult to believe that $25 per week (in ten months time for those who get it at all) will have a great enough impact to change these children’s trajectories. The shortfall in food, housing, heating, internet, health, schooling and other costs is surely much larger than that?
Where the reasons are other than money, or as well as money – parents unable to provide for their children because of poor parenting skills, drug or alcohol abuse, disability, abusive relationships and so on – a simple and small increase in funding will certainly not make the necessary change. This is where the shaping of services and interventions around children and their families that Minister English talks about will be critical. And this is where the detail comes in – and arguably where design is needed most. This is where the difficult task of changing government agency practices and NGO coordination, targeting and funding comes in.
This isn’t in the budget package. So the opportunity and the need exists, and the jury remains out!
Whilst there is evidence that working families are better placed to rear successful families – that does not mean that any type of work will benefit a family previously relying on benefits. Requiring even sole parents to undertake work from when their child is three – when that work may impede rather than improve their ability to parent well – surely signals a political rather than a designed, child centred genesis to this change?
A truly design led approach would bring existing and new insight to the fore and allow a solution to be generated from the needs of citizens, considering current service delivery, constraints and funding. That solution would be inventive, workable, measurable and would change trajectories – because our measures would show if it wasn’t and it could be improved so that it did. It would also start now not wait for April Fool’s day 2016 - when the benefit changes kick in.
We could then start to move forward and yet still be able to frame up a future state that could be evaluated, costed, planned and undertaken as part of BAU, or the very next budget.
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