After a year of data-driven social reform, National heads to boot camp

Boot camps, parental fines… how on earth do these policies fit the social policy framework of the National government in 2017? Simon Wilson takes a look at what the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues have been saying this year.

On 14 May, prime minister Bill English told a conference of the National Party faithful gathered in Mt Wellington, “If you spend money and you don’t know what difference it’s going to make, then it’s a waste.”

On 26 May, the morning after the budget, finance minister Steven Joyce had a similar message for a breakfast meeting of business leaders at the Heritage Hotel. He said, “The test of how much you care is not the money you spend but how much you change things.”

In an interview in Auckland on 29 June, social investment and justice minister Amy Adams told me she was proud of the way government spending was “data driven”. She said, “We want to know we are spending money on the programmes with the greatest likelihood of success.” That’s why they tell officials that spending programmes should be capable of producing useful performance metrics.

And it’s six years now since Bill English, then finance minister, made what could be described as a foundational statement of his approach to social spending. “Prisons,” he told a Families Commission hui, “are a moral and fiscal failure.” It costs $100,000 to keep a prisoner in prison for a year, and very little of that money helps with rehabilitation or lowering the crime rate.

On Sunday, Bill English and Amy Adams announced the return of boot camps.

Bill English. Portrait by Adrian Malloch, March 2017

The government’s approach to social spending is underpinned by some pretty clear principles. They want to target the people most in need of help (this is at the heart of the social investment philosophy). They want new ideas, because they believe same old same old is part of the problem.

They insist on evidence-based research to back those new ideas. That’s a problem for any genuinely new idea, of course, but still. I’ve talked to advisers who have worked in the orbit of Bill English on housing, health, education and other welfare areas and all are remarkably consistent in what they say: he demands robust evidence of a programme’s value before he will support it or agree to fund it.

Following from this, the government also wants to measure outcomes. Keeping the value of the spending under review keeps them focused on what works, allowing them to refine and develop as they go.

There’s a focus on early intervention: the concept of spending money now to save more of it later is well accepted. And there’s a focus on a comprehensive approach: the phrase “wraparound care” gets used a lot.

So, boot camps? It’s easy to see they don’t fit most of these principles. They’re a very old concept, based on an idea that might be widely believed but has very little evidential merit: namely, that a stiff bit of discipline will sort out those delinquent kids. Especially the boys.

Paula Bennett introduced boot camps in 2009 but quietly closed them again. They failed. If you doubt that, think of it this way: if they’d succeeded we would certainly have them still with us today. There’s more about all that here.

But the government has characterised its new boot camp proposal as something different. It’s a “Junior Training Academy”, and although it’s to be run by the army in Waiouru, it will, says justice minister Amy Adams, “address problems like addiction or a lack of literacy and numeracy skills”.

Also, the academy won’t be an option for every delinquent more inclined to shoplift than go to school. It’s intended for “Young Serious Offenders” (YSOs), the most dangerous and persistent repeat offenders, of whom the government says there are about 150 in the whole country. Each course will be for a full year and in each year’s cohort there will be about 50 YSOs.

On RNZ’s Morning Report on Monday Bill English had two things to say about the academy. One was that it will be different from previous efforts because of those wraparound educational and health services. Of course, that’s what they also said in 2009, when counselling and an educational focus were stressed. Boot camps have never been just parade marches and PFT runs.

English didn’t elaborate on how the army in Waiouru will be able to do what other boot camps haven’t. If he’d had some evidence for it he would surely have produced it.

The other thing the prime minister kept saying was, “We’ve got to try something.”

Having to say that really must have hurt. Just writing a cheque and hoping for the best is the very thing Bill English has spent his whole career in cabinet trying to stamp out.

The Junior Training Academy isn’t early intervention, a programme for at-risk children in the critical first three years of life. It’s a last-ditch attempt to keep our most serious young offenders out of prison, where they run a high risk of becoming hardened adult criminals.

And as English was implying in his defence of the policy, they have to try, don’t they?

Yes they do. And who knows, maybe taking the worst young offenders out of harm’s way, putting them in a structured but not prison environment, accepting that many of their needs are related to mental health and addiction, surrounding them with health, vocational and other services, all targeted to their individual needs, and engaging the support of whanau, iwi and others in their own communities… maybe it could work? But is that what the government’s proposing? It doesn’t seem so.

The solutions are not beyond comprehension. But they’re a bit more complex than army discipline might allow.

JUSTICE MINISTER AMY ADAMS. PHOTO / GETTY

The government announced another new “law and order” policy (their phrase) on the weekend: instant fines for parents whose children are found on the streets, very late at night, without supervision. Like boot camps, this policy reinforces an idea that’s widely held but not supported by any evidence that it does any good: that parents should be made to pay for their children’s delinquency.

What the policy doesn’t address is why a child aged under 14 might out at 3am. It seems reasonable to assume that some of them – perhaps most of them – fear being at home at night because of what they might witness there and/or what might happen to them there.

In that June interview, Amy Adams said: “Family violence is the touchstone for everything else.” She talked about how important it is to remember that children caught up in domestic violence are victims.

The touchstone for everything else. She was saying that if you track back into the lives of the people who stand in the dock and end up in prison, there’s a good chance you’ll find a family life wrecked by violence. She was saying that the most important thing to remember about delinquent, cast off and runaway children and their families is that they need support. Not punishment, but help. (There’s more on family violence here.) She gets it.

She also said a lot of work was going into learning “which interventions work for which cohort” and that there was “quite poor information on the worth of some interventions”. She suggested that “what works for a young Māori gang prospect, say, might be quite different to what works for an Indian immigrant”.

She didn’t say, and I didn’t think to ask, whether fining the parents would work for either group.

Prime Minister Bill English and deputy Paula Bennett (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Paula Bennett, deputy prime minister and minister of police, led a session on crime at that National Party conference in May. She said, “Our whole focus is on reoffending and a major part is on prevention at the early end. And the key to that is to turn around poverty and dysfunction.”

Not what you might expect. But it fitted well with what English, Adams and others had been saying about the government’s aims with its social policy.

And yet there was another theme in play at that conference, and Bennett promoted it. The crime session was dominated by the recent spate of violent burglaries in Auckland shops: dairies, convenience stores, petrol stations and bottle shops. The Indian community, many of whose members own those shops, was angry and afraid, and about a dozen of them were at the conference to demand action.

Bennett blamed gangs, who “try to make themselves look like respectable citizens but also peddle their drugs through Henderson High School.” She said “I personally think sentences are too light” and “getting the government to pay for rehabilitation programmes for gang members, excuse me, well that’s a façade”.

Someone asked, why don’t you get rid of the gangs?

Bennett said, “I personally feel quite strongly about them being on benefits and about them sitting in state houses.” There was a murmur of agreement.

Do you help people join society or cast them out? National has spent considerable time and effort working out how to do the former, but it has members and supporters far more inclined to the latter. And right now, a few weeks out from the election, the boot camp and parental fine policies are designed for them.

Over lunch, one of Indian community leaders told me he had been a policeman in India. He said, “We would have cleaned this shit up quickly.”

In all of this, there’s a gap between desire and reality. And there’s more. At his post-budget breakfast meeting on 26 May, hosted by the financial consultancy firm Grant Thornton in the grand old tearooms of the Heritage Hotel, finance minister Steven Joyce spoke candidly about mental health.

His budget had allocated a new $224 million spending package to be spread over four years, but there was no detail. Over breakfast, Joyce explained why. “We asked for new initiatives,” he said. “And all the agencies stayed in their silos and re-proposed what they were already doing on their own.” So almost nothing got approved.

Several things to learn from that. One, the government does not like it when government agencies fail to cooperate, or “stay in their silos”. Amy Adams told me the same thing a month later: silo thinking, she said, was a big problem in the public service. It happens “because they’re risk averse” and because when you break down the silo walls and start working together, you could end up being blamed for someone else’s mistakes. She put it like this: “They cling to ‘structural accountability’.”

This is tragic. It explains why officials in one department can propose boot camps while those in another want to talk about mental health. It also explains why wraparound care and training in a structured environment is not provided by a group of government agencies working together, but gets turned into a boot camp and dumped on the army.

Joyce also made it clear the government will not support failed and stale programmes. And, in case you missed it, they are really serious about evidence-based policies to reform the welfare state. If only they could persuade the officials to join in.

Further, although the minister of health, Jonathan Coleman, has been in his job for the entirety of this government’s third term and has the high ranking of 7th in the cabinet, the health ministry seems to be dysfunctional. It’s election year and mental health has been one of the hottest issues: not to have had acceptable policies ready for the budget suggests incompetence by both the ministry and the minister himself.

After that fiasco, Coleman was called into a small room, where Steven Joyce grabbed his nicely groomed hair and banged his head on the table many times while Bill English and Amy Adams stood by watching coldly. Or so one imagines.

Now, three months later, Coleman and Adams have jointly announced a “$100 million fund” to be “invested in a package of 17 new initiatives aimed at helping New Zealanders suffering from mental health issues, as well as focusing on improving services and earlier intervention”.

The list of 17 initiatives is very general. The money itself is merely a re-announcement of the $224 million already included in the budget. Coleman and his ministry still don’t know exactly what they’re doing.

It was Adams who said, “mental health is a social investment priority for this government. It’s one of our most challenging social issues and it affects a large number of New Zealanders with complex needs.” Including, in all likelihood, most of the kids destined for that boot camp.

English is proud of his government’s achievements in social policy. As one example, he said recently that there has been “a dramatic increase in the number of students gaining NCEA level 2. Thousands of kids who we used to think couldn’t do it, are now doing it.”

NCEA level 2 is important because it’s a rough guide to functional literacy. In our prisons, according to Mike Williams from the Howard League for Penal Reform, 63 percent of inmates do not have NCEA level 1 “and are therefore functionally illiterate”. Mark that: there’s very probably a direct link between illiteracy and crime.

At that National Party conference in May, education minister Nikki Kaye said, “There is a reason Louise Upston is both minister of corrections and associate minister of education. Because we do understand that there’s a link.”

She was talking about exactly the same thing. And like English, Kaye is proud of her party’s achievements in social policy: “Our party is to the forefront of innovation in education, compared to the parties of the left which are freighted with cynicism.”

Minister of defence Mark Mitchell is also proud. He told that conference youth crime was “down 32% over the last seven or eight years”. Just this week, the minister for social development, Anne Tolley, quoted that figure as 31%. It’s clearly not a crisis.

Amy Adams is proud too. In 2008, she told me, a mere 245 prisoners went through any kind of programme for alcohol and other drugs. Now, the number is 6900.

“The ideal,” she said, “is that everyone gets what they need. That, we know, is money well spent.”

Money well spent. It’s not what it costs but how effective the outcome. Again, Steven Joyce: “The test of how much you care is not the money you spend but how much you change things.”

A judge told me not so long ago that kids become delinquents and then criminals for a range of reasons. It’s common that they can’t read and the underlying problems that cause this are often deafness, ADHD, Asperger’s. On the whole, she said, these are illnesses and conditions and they are diagnosable, treatable, manageable. So why don’t we diagnose and treat?

Most members of the cabinet know we should do this. Most of them are proud of their insistence on evidence-based research and measurable policies, the progress they’ve made. But there is also an instinct to punish and a belief that populist fear trumps facts.

“Freighted with cynicism”, as Nikki Kaye said of her political opponents. But it’s hard to think of any social spending policies more deserving of the term than boot camps and parental fines.

simon@thespinoff.co.nz; @simonbwilson


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