Governments around the developed world have struggled in recent years to make significant progress on wicked social problems like reducing long-term welfare dependence and supporting vulnerable children.
Multiple factors act to mutually reinforce the status quo — it’s hard to get a job if you lack skills and resources, and being out of work makes it harder build up skills and resources.
The siloed design of contemporary public services — a department dedicated to a certain policy area, which answers to an individual minister — works well in many ways but has few incentives for the kind of focused collaborative work some of these challenges require.
But New Zealand has found a way to at least make a dent in some of these tough challenges.
The results approach
In 2012 NZ began implementation of its Better Public Services Results approach, which a recent study argues “has been very successful in making progress in previously intractable social problems.”
It involves choosing 10 priority areas, setting measurable targets and then appointing agencies to work together. Targets are publicly announced and a minister and CEO are named to lead and be responsible for each result area. Progress data is reported to the cabinet and the public, as are case studies.
A clear focus on achieving a set number of publicly-known outcomes requires different ministers and agencies to figure out ways to work together. It leaves open the question of how the targets are achieved, meaning solutions can be tailored to fit each one and can be altered in response to feedback and monitoring.
The initiative is designed to retain the strengths of the dominant public management system, with its strong vertical accountabilities, while addressing the weaknesses it creates, including fragmentation, lack of prioritisation and obstacles to collaboration around crosscutting problems.
Academics Rodney Scott and Ross Boyd define its characteristics thus:
“The results approach has five key features: agencies organising around outcomes (an extension of the sectoral approach); focussing on a small number of results; specifying the outcomes at a manageable level; appointing leaders and making them responsible for achieving results; and using data and performance information to drive action.”
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And unlike other solutions to some of these problems, it hasn’t involved expensive machinery of government reshuffles.
Head of state services Iain Rennie says the Better Public Services program, of which the results approach is a significant aspect, is “about really embedding a culture of innovation, of continuous improvement, it’s about helping public servants have access to some tools that will allow them to do their jobs better. Better public services at a whole system level is also about improving the jobs that we do on behalf of New Zealanders.”
The 10 priorities
The 10 priorities incorporate specific targets across five groupings: reducing long-term welfare dependence, supporting vulnerable children, boosting skills and employment, reducing crime and improving interaction with government.
On recent figures, three of the 10 priority areas are judged to be “on track”: increasing infant immunisation and reducing rheumatic fever, reducing total crime rates and improving the number of government transactions completed digitally. The other seven score mid-point marks, and none fall into the bottom “urgent attention required” category.
The rate of immunisation coverage for children at eight months, for example, has increased from 84% in 2011 to 93.7% at the end of last year — close to the goal of 95%. Rates of rheumatic fever hospitalisation have halved in five years.
The State Services Commission of New Zealand has published 89 case study vignettes related to the results approach — such as an interview with a nurse who has a dedicated four hour slot each week to remind parents to immunise their children.
Unfortunately, the results approach can’t be a solution to all problems — while setting a short list of priorities is a powerful way to focus resources and effort, it also means the approach is probably limited in how many problems can be tackled at once.
“Trying to do too much has hampered previous efforts to improve outcomes because it has been unclear how to prioritise scarce resources and capability,” argue Scott and Boyd. “The list of priority results needs to be short enough to guide resourcing trade–offs.”
Working across government and with the community
Despite — or because of — this targeted focus, the initiative has led to changes in how public service agencies work together.
Those with existing relationships found it easiest to ramp up collaboration: police, the courts and the correctional system had few issues increasing collaborative work to pursue the goal of reducing crime rates.
But it’s created new links and creative solutions, too. Departments are now more focused on achieving improved outcomes in early childhood — an important building block in dealing with major, costly social problems. It’s well known early childhood experiences are linked to adult mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, poor educational outcomes and unemployment. A lack of early support can compound other disadvantages.
Thanks to a renewed focus, NZ has made progress on increasing participation in early childhood learning, one of the targets that’s designated as “on track, but changes not yet embedded”. They’re edging towards the goal of 98% — in five years, the percentage of children who have attended early childhood education before starting school has increased from 94.7% to 96.4%.
The outcomes focus has seen the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs co-fund a project for the first time in an effort to enrol more children in early learning, for example.
It’s resulted in a transformation in how the public sector works, says Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs CEO Pauline Winter in a government video (above).
“The significance of the co-funding between the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs and the Ministry of Education is huge,” she explains.
“It’s the first opportunity we’ve had to work in a way like this. It allows the teams to work together, so there’s a different type of relationship that’s happening between agency and agency. But not only that, we can leverage off each other’s resources, experience, community contacts and it’s just a really innovative and different way to work.”
The drive for outcomes has pushed agencies to work harder to link up with community organisations.
The government has worked with New Zealand Rugby League — which has significant reach, and many connections with disadvantaged groups, to promote healthier, safer and better educated players and families. The league attracts over 40,000 players and 140,000 fans across the country, many of them in Māori and Pacific communities. They’ve worked with local teams to get kids into early learning playgroups, for example.
“Often we think we can create policy in isolation without connecting it truly with the community, then it’s not going to work,” says Winter.
“That’s what I really love about this particular initiative, that we’ve got a very big agency working alongside a boutique agency, Pacific Island Affairs. We’re very small in numbers, but we’re very confident we know our community well, we’re very confident we can help bigger agencies provide these services to Pacific communities in a meaningful way.”