Palliatives for social malady need caution

Kieran Madden 

The government is going all out on its Social Investment strategy for fixing social ills, but the big data it relies upon raises some seriously big concerns and could potentially drive away those it is trying to help.

Social Investment, according to Social Development Minister Amy Adams, is “fundamentally about changing the lives of the most vulnerable New Zealanders by focusing on individuals and families, understanding their needs better, and doing more of what is most likely to give the best results.”

The key focus

This focus is key. We need to know what is and what is not working and respond appropriately.

As Prime Minister Bill English outlined in his pre-budget speech, “Past governments have judged success only by what they spent, rather than what difference that spending made to people’s lives…Yet changing lives is the whole point.”

He is right. Changed lives should be our yardstick; not just spending or good intentions. To this end, the government will be establishing a stand-alone Social Investment Agency in July which will extend the approach beyond the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) to include social sector agencies like Education, Health, and Justice.

It is a good idea. But underpinning this whole ‘pivot’ of the system is big data and with it big data collection, which, if done poorly, can undermine both trust and results.

Privacy Commissioner

MSD’s data collection policies, which require NGOs to provide personal data on their clients, were recently criticised by the Privacy Commissioner John Edwards as “excessive and disproportionate.”

His main concern was that many would not seek help at all due to these requirements and remain ‘invisible.’

“It is very important,” Edwards argued, “for the success of future programmes that it proceeds with caution, and takes steps to build and maintain the trust of the New Zealanders it is intended to help.”

Trust is the word here. Instilling trust takes time; it is hard-won and easily-lost, particularly with those who have been hurt before.

Personal experience

From my many conversations with many NGOs who exist to support individuals and families facing the greatest challenges, the ‘hard-to-reach’ that the government is explicitly seeking to help, they say their clients simply would walk out of the door if they had to supply their personal details.

Heck, they would not even come near the door. Why? They are afraid. Afraid of losing their children, of losing access to benefits, of being arrested to name a few.

Whether their fears are justified or not, if these policies are a barrier for people seeking help we have a problem.

I am supportive of the kaupapa of Social Investment; it makes good sense and I dearly want it to work in the long-run. But for it to really change lives, the government must take heed of these early warning signs before scaling up faster than the trust infrastructure can handle.

The potential, unintended consequences edge of the double-edged data sword need to be named, and as Edwards outlines, a cautious way forward is the right way forward.

Kieran Madden is a Researcher at Maxim Institute based in Auckland.

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