Bill English was just starting to roll out his social investment idea throughout Government when he lost power. His frustration at Labour’s reluctance to wholeheartedly adopt the idea was evident in an interview with Thomas Coughlan.

Far from being reflective or despondent after his electoral defeat, former Prime Minister Bill English is actually steaming.

“The left’s delusion is working in categories and universals, and it means that people, particularly at the bottom, just get shit service.”

Bill English talked in his Wellington office in colourful terms this week about social investment, one of his government’s flagship projects and his own policy passion project. Far from shuffling off the political stage with the fifth National government, social investment has remained in the news, particularly as the new government ponders how to implement targets of its own.

Last week, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, suggested she was in favour of early intervention, and would preserve aspects of social investment, though she wouldn’t elaborate on which aspects.

Next week, a new book on social investment edited by Jonathan Boston and Derek Gill will be launched in Wellington by Carmel Sepuloni, the new minister responsible for the Social Investment Agency, established by English and preserved by the new government. Boston told Newsroom he was confident social investment would remain a feature of the new government’s welfare policy.

“The toolkit happens to be pretty sophisticated, but the alternative to that is flying blind.”

English talking on social investment is excited, animated and occasionally angry. Quite unlike the tired, bored English who had spent the previous week dodging questions about his leadership.

And he wants to talk about social investment – a lot. Just as this reporter was being ushered out of the office so English could move to his next meeting, he quickly motioned me to sit back down: “One last thing before I let you go…”

Social investment is close to his heart. It was English’s baby – and he wants it back.

He  is defensive of the policy and refuses to brook criticism that it was difficult to understand or implemented without care for privacy concerns.

“It’s just the Left don’t like it,” English says.

“Social investment is simply about making better decisions about how to change lives and making those decisions includes using data and evidence to decide what works and then when you’ve done it deciding if it worked,” he said.

“Now the toolkit happens to be pretty sophisticated, but the alternative to that is flying blind.”

An enthusiastic Bill English at the launch of the Social Investment Agency last year. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

To English, social investment represents a policy solution to New Zealand’s problem of entrenched welfare dependency and the issue of accountability in the public service. Though English is careful never to frame the policy as an exercise in cost cutting, social investment, at least in its early stages (from around 2011-2015) was designed to reduce overall welfare expenditure.

He thinks a big part of the problem with implementing the policy was the entrenched attitudes against it from within the civil service itself, which he believes stymied some of his reforms.

“Some of the thinking in government services is very limited and some have deeply entrenched habits, particularly around the control of information,” he said.

Like many other big-data enthusiasts, English speaks with an almost messianic zeal. He is plainly frustrated with the pace of public sector reforms and is proud of the discomfort that he might have caused in the civil service, almost like a Silicon Valley disruptor. He measured the success of the project by the level of discomfort it caused the establishment.

“You’ve just got to see the tension that it creates in the bureaucracy,” he said with a smile.

Like other disruptors, sometimes English’s belief in the big-data nirvana runs ahead of public opinion

English believes the bureaucracy’s rules on personal data don’t align with what the public would think of as acceptable. He is obviously frustrated that these rules slowed the implementation of social investment.

“The efforts to resolve all the privacy issues by making centrally driven rules don’t take you very far, very fast, ” he said.

So was English a “move fast and break things” Prime Minister? Like other disruptors, sometimes English’s belief in the big-data nirvana runs ahead of public opinion; sometimes the reality of the public’s enthusiasm for the project doesn’t match up to the prophet’s. If people could only understand the project, he thinks they would be more likely to give up the information.

“The law is that it’s not the government’s information, it’s your information,” English said.

“The system is designed to trace a dollar, not a person” he said, arguing that accountability in public service doesn’t just mean being able to trace where public money has gone, but whether it’s actually changed a person’s life.

The key question, however, is what if that person doesn’t want to be traced like the public service dollar?

“People are accustomed to seeing privacy in terms of the rules they make, all [the bureaucracy] needs to do is to ask the individual person,” he says, agreeing that if people knew how much giving up their data might help them, most would choose to surrender it.

But that’s where English’s zeal slightly overruns the public’s. Many NGOs and community service providers did ask their clients about surrendering data about themselves. Last year, a damning report from the Privacy Commissioner into the Ministry of Social Development’s data-sharing revealed the scope of privacy concerns and the reluctance of those who dealt with state services to share their data.

An organization that assisted male survivors of sexual violence said that none of the men it spoke to would have sought help with the organisation if they knew that their data would be shared. The push-back didn’t just come from the bureaucracy, but from some of the very people English thought he could help.

“Labour is all about maintaining the support of the middle class and the suppliers of services”

In spite of the considerable concerns of some of its customers (a word English likes to use: “I use the term customer all the time because [the bureaucrats] all hate it. That’s because they think of the recipients of the service as passive, needy people”), social investment did chalk-up some significant victories.

English’s targeted response to rheumatic fever is something he’s particularly proud of.

“The investment equation shows its worth spending almost anything to stop it happening. I said ‘don’t worry about the money. If it works, we’ll pay the bill’. It turned out the bill was $60 million for three years,” he said.

But even then, progress was slow – “Having complained about it for years, it took a long time to come up with actual studies with actual kids because they’ve never been organized to deal with it.” By 2016, diagnoses of rheumatic fever had decreased by 23 percent from 2012 levels (although they rose again in 2017).

The conversation moves to the future of social investment and Labour’s “proportionate universalism”, something English doesn’t have a lot of time for.

“I don’t care what they say about proportionate universalism, Labour is all about maintaining the support of the middle class and the suppliers of services”, he says.

“You can see the frustration with this government where the biggest single spend is on the first year of free tertiary education and it made no difference to anybody and the opportunity cost of that is huge of what they could have done…most of the money is going to the students”, he said.

English sees the current government’s big-ticket programs as regressive. With rules around fiscal responsibility in place, the government will have to weigh up the trade-offs between a few expensive, broad spectrum interventions and a basket of cheaper, narrow-spectrum interventions. He’s not convinced the government has the balance right.

“It’s sliding back to the tradition of public policy analysis which uses broader categories and generalisations: poverty, children, helping Maori. Social investment is all about getting down to the person and the family”.

We talk about incomes and the economy. English is of the view that the economy must be in good shape to provide good social services. A counter argument is that worsening inequalities within the system (as the ‘good’ economy raises incomes at the top) pushes costs up for those at the bottom, increasing their reliance on social services.

English isn’t immune to the idea of the importance of raising incomes.

“We started distributing income in the 2017 budget. The baby bonus and their incomes package. We don’t’ disagree with that because it targets the poorest families, but it’s only half the story”, he says.

“Some of that extra income is going to make it easier to sit somewhere not actually engaging with the wider world. What you’ve got to deal with is the dysfunction because low income is worse where there is persistent deprivation.”

He’s confident that the ability of social investment to tackle this side of the welfare problem – dependency and deprivation – the side that has eluded governments of all colours for decades, will eventually lead Labour away from proportionate universalism to some of the targeted measures of National’s plan.

“Putting more money in will have some impact, but it won’t fix dysfunction. You need the social investment tool kit which you have alongside it. They’ve ditched that,” he said.

“But they’ll be forced to readopt it, because it’s not just income, and even if you believe it is, income doesn’t fix rheumatic fever, the quality of the house, or dad committing crime.”

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