As much of Auckland Council grapples with slashed budgets, one department has avoided major cuts and is enticing investment into South and West Auckland, Justin Latif reports.
Covid came at just the worst time for Geoff McKay.
The Māngere-based concreter had his van and all his tools stolen a week prior to the lockdown and, with work drying up due to level four restrictions, he couldn’t earn extra cash to get new gear. One thing that made his lockdown more bearable, however, was connecting with He Waka Eke Noa (HWEN), an Auckland Council-run supplier network aiming to support Māori and Pacific-owned businesses access contracts through local and central government. The team at HWEN have been helping McKay with structuring his business so he can get more lucrative work and supporting him in applying for the wage subsidy.
“They’ve been really good. With everything else going on, they’ve been really helpful through this tricky period,” says McKay.
HWEN – which has almost 370 members and has secured $44 million worth of work for its businesses in the last 10 months – is just one of many initiatives delivered by council’s The Southern Initiative (TSI).
While much of council has had to drastically reduce budgets, resulting in facilities being closed, maintenance being pushed back and capital projects being delayed, TSI has avoided major cuts, while continuing to secure money for its projects through alternative sources.
But if you’re not a close follower of the machinery of local government, you may never have heard of TSI. Established in 2012 to address the economic inequalities in South Auckland, in the last two years it has experienced significant growth – doubling in size and expanding into West Auckland via The Western Initiative (TWI) – and it now has a budget of $8 million.
And from next month it will come under the new name of Community and Social Innovation (CSI) which, according to internal council documents shown to The Spinoff, will result in eight roles being disestablished and an increased focus on research and innovation.
Manurewa-Papakura Ward councillor Angela Dalton says the changes aren’t insignificant.
“They are moving more towards research and away from frontline delivery, which is a change. This is another internal restructure, [but] it actually has quite an impact on the delivery to the ratepayers. It sounds like The Southern Initiative and The Western Initiative will feed back into CSI.”
Dalton can see some added benefit for South and West Auckland, especially if the research leads to policy change.
“TSI and TWI are more likely to attract external funding if they are not strongly aligned with council for the work they are doing in the social infrastructure space. From what I’ve seen, they’ve done some good research. And if they are going to do all of this research, then use it to change policy, that’s what’s going to change the lives of people in South Auckland.”
CSI’s director Gael Surgenor admits policy change is hard, but points out that’s exactly what TSI has achieved through securing $22.1 million in the government’s latest budget to support Auckland’s Pacific community in low-waged, low-skilled work.
“The Pacific Skills Shift that was funded in the budget is a result of our work over the last three years, and that kind of development work and research we did has resulted in a significant initiative,” says Surgenor. “I think this is one of the best things to come out of TSI. We’re getting to partner with government to deliver a social innovation that hopefully will lead to quite significant change. Not a programme or a service; rather, [it’s] a breaking down of the barriers that are stopping Pacific people advancing in the labour market and getting quality jobs and decent incomes.”
According to Surgenor, the CSI draws only $2 million of its $8 million budget from ratepayers, with the rest coming from around 15 external funders, including central government and philanthropic trusts. She says one particular focus for the CSI going forward will be to dial down its frontline employment services while finding alternate ways to support school leavers during a recession.
“In the youth economy area, our focus is going to be less on job brokering and more on post-Covid challenges and what needs to change in the system to support young people through the next few years.
“We’re going to have to adapt, to look at alternatives to traditional jobs and job creation … and we’re going to be looking for those high-value opportunities for young people and digital technology is one of those sweet spots.”
Ōtara-Papatoetoe Local Board chair Lotu Fuli says her board has been frustrated with TSI’s management of youth employment programmes in her area and welcomes a change in focus.
“To be honest, TSI hasn’t delivered for us. We had to disband our Youth Connections programme because TSI failed to deliver for almost the entire term. Once TSI took that over, it all just fell apart. They just didn’t deliver any of the projects, even simple projects like driver licensing projects in the schools – there was no oversight, they just couldn’t deliver. So I think if they move to something different, it could be better for them, because the delivery side is a problem for them.”
Surgenor says supporting youth into jobs is highly complex work, but they are constantly learning how to better deliver what young people need.
“We’ve never done service delivery – but I guess they [local boards] think it’s just about getting a job, and I guess they feel like they haven’t had so much control. But it wasn’t working before, and that’s why Sir Stephen Tindall [a major external funder of youth employment services] shifted his investment, and what was happening before isn’t relevant any more anyway. So we need to reboot it and I’ll be talking to the local boards about that in a few weeks.”
Another point raised by some South Auckland community organisations is that TSI’s ability to attract more investment comes at their expense. Peter Sykes is the chief executive of ME Family Services, a significant social service provider in Māngere.
“When they created the supercity, they destroyed local networks and infrastructure. So theoretically TSI should be the group that coordinates or provides that community infrastructure, but it’s had to become a service delivery agent, and therefore it is competing with us, rather than working with us.
“TSI is competing for funding from council and local boards, it’s competing for funding from government departments through the contracts it’s seeking, and it’s seeking philanthropic funding from groups like Foundation North, and it’s basically speaking on behalf of communities, with TSI’s voice valued over the local community voices.”
Surgenor says that given the size of the challenges faced in South and West Auckland, the government should be increasing its investment to the region as a whole, potentially reducing the need for different groups to apply for money from the same sources.
“This is hard work … this is about trying to grapple with complex challenges, that business-as-usual programmes and services don’t get to,” she says.
“We’re in these uncertain, tough times, where the light is truly shone on the inequity and the socio-economic challenges. But I think more of this way of working is going to be needed and I do think it will require a bigger investment, and that investment really needs to come from central government.”
*Justin Latif used to work as a communications specialist for The Southern Initiative.
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