Wednesday, 09 September 2020 08:08

Well meaning rules do not mean well

Written by  Dr Jacqueline Rowarth
Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Dr Jacqueline Rowarth.

OPINION: Investing in environmental improvement makes a lot more sense than paying for bureaucratic processes that are perceived to add no value.

Southland Federated Farmers’ President Geoffrey Young has recently made that point clearly. But when the processes are seen by some to add value, and are backed by law, the consequences of ignoring them are likely to be fines. The result is argument, unpleasantness and reduced money available for environmental improvement.

It’s a lose-lose outcome at the very time when New Zealand society needs an economic and environmental win-win – a ‘fit for purpose’ goal supported by scientific research as well as policy.

At the moment, we have well-meaning people making well-meaning decisions without having any real understanding of the practicability and implications of those decisions.

The recent Auckland boundaries dividing Alert Levels 2 and 3 are a case in point. The border was drawn through the production area of Pukekohe, splitting farmers and growers from land and packhouses by a line that made sense in Wellington, but created mayhem in reality.

Belated efforts were made to sort out the problems, but the fact remains, that people were ‘doing their best’ without understanding the issues and implications. This makes knowing what questions to ask extremely difficult.

The lack of understanding has its roots in history. In 2003, the State Services Commission suggested focusing on management and leadership rather than discipline knowledge. This was to improve culture and functioning in the public sector.

The downside is that without discipline context, people cannot assess whether something is or isn’t ‘fit for purpose’. As a consequence, they become focused on process to ensure that the boxes have been ticked, rather than the outcome.

Professor David Skegg made this point in his 2019 book ‘The Health of the People’.

He stated that although there are excellent people in Public Health around the country, in Wellington there is what seems like a black hole. He went on to say that the Ministry of Health is clearly the key central body that needs to greatly strengthen its expertise and resources in public health.

The same argument can be made for most ministries.

And it isn’t a new problem.

In 2010, a Treasury report indicated that over half of the policy advisory staff who responded to a survey had a background in political studies or economics. Another 14% had a background in public policy and the rest had studied law or humanities. There were no policy analysts with qualifications in science or engineering. Health and agriculture were mentioned only in the names of ministries.

The 2010 Treasury report also suggested that policy capability requires more than generic skills in policy – it also requires professional knowledge and subject specific knowledge.

Ten years on, and a quick check of staffing, shows that there is still a paucity of discipline expertise. Over the same time, there has been an increase in tertiary education offerings of policy qualifications.

Domestic degree graduates have increased from 20 to 75 a year in the last decade, and domestic master’s degree graduates have increased from 60 to 100. There are now more degree graduates in political science and policy (695) than there are in agriculture (235).“Policy” is now a career, and taskforces to address particular problems, have become the new norm.  However, taskforces are difficult to convene rapidly (as in the Level 2-3 Alerts) and rarely manage to bring in all the expertise that outsiders think is appropriate.

The Winter Grazing Taskforce established after the Southland floods last winter comprised vets, environmentalists, scientists and farmers – yet still produced requirements that are difficult to achieve in practice 100% of the time.

The question becomes how much compliance should there be for what likelihood of event? Risk assessment requires subject specific knowledge to enable ‘fit for purpose’ policies.

The bigger question is how Wellington can achieve what Treasury suggested in 2010 – more subject specific knowledge in its ministries?

‘Fit for purpose’ is important everywhere.

• Dr Jacqueline Rowarth is a farmer-elected director for DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and comments are her own. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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