28 Apr 2015

Social services upheaval needed - think-tank

6:56 pm on 28 April 2015

A Government think-tank is urging a radical shakeup for the country's social services.

Person in hospital bed.

Hospitals are one of the social services mentioned in the report. Photo: 123RF

In a damning draft report, the Productivity Commission says people accessing social services often perceived them as confusing, overly directive and unhelpful.

It said these services could appear wasteful and disconnected from real world problems.

The services - which help New Zealanders live healthy, safe and fulfilling live - include hospitals, courts, the police, Housing NZ and Work and Income.

Every year, the country spends $34 billion on social services - more than 10 percent of the country's GDP.

The report called for significant reform with a shift away from the current top-down approach, devolving more responsibility to providers.

It recommended setting up an Office of Social Services to evaluate how money was being spent and suggest ways to improve the delivery of these services.

The report said Government agencies often tightly prescribed what providers could and could not do, making it difficult for them to innovate and tailor services to an individual's needs.

Those who spoke to the Commission referred to this as the "ambulance at the bottom of the cliff" approach to service delivery.

It said, where possible, clients should be given more choice and greater emphasis needs to be placed on early intervention to avoid an escalation of problems.

Instead, government departments role would be responsible for setting standards, monitoring performance and overseeing evaluation.

The Commission, which received 134 submissions most of them service providers such as Barnados, the Salvation Army Relationship Aotearoa and the CCS Disability Action.

Time and time again it said it had heard of situations where the system was failing to cope adequately with the complex needs of clients.

It said the system tended to bundle clients into homogenous groups and as such did not tailor services to the individual needs of clients.

This resulted in an underutilisation of entitlements.

"Even when people are entitled to services, and aware of their entitlement, they choose not to use the services because it does not meet their needs."

"Not only is this a poor outcome for the client; it indicates a poor use of public funding."

But the Public Service Association said the commission was really trying to introduce more competition into the social service sector, not improve the experience of clients.

National secretary Richard Wagstaff said while more could be done to improve co-ordination between government departments, a competitive tendering process was not going to deliver that.

He said experience had shown such processes led to lower labour costs, staff investment and a drop in service quality.

While acknowledging the special and unique role NGOs play, he said the current funding levels were not sufficient.

"The problem is way NGOs are funded currently is inadequate and we think there is a crisis when it comes to NGO provision of home support services currently.

"The workforce is very poorly paid, it has a very high turnover and has inadequate investment in skills."

The Commission's chair Murray Sherwin said the cost or savings of the proposal was not part of its mandate.

But he said if implemented, it was unlikely to require more money.

"In fact if it works the way we would like it to work then over time it should lead to at least better outcomes and maybe lower costs," Mr Sherwin said.

The report also called for more evaluation of what was being provided and better data.

It said government agencies generally knew very little about how these programmes worked and where the money was being spent.

The report cited the example of one stocktake aimed at children identified 162 different services and programmes across seven government agencies in 2012/13.

"Ministers and government agencies tend to focus on the flow of new social service initiatives. Relatively little attention is given to actively managing the large stock of social service programmes that account for the majority of public expenditure," the report said.

The public have until late June to comment on the draft report with the government expected to receive the final report by the end of August.