Measuring efficacy in social services

News Zealand spends billions on welfare and social services every year, but how do we know it’s money well spent?

The government already uses data it holds to make sure citizens, are getting the right social services. Now it wants to take that a step further and use identifiable data to target help to individuals. But some social service groups have said handing client information to the government will kill the trust they have with their clients, with many simply avoiding help.

If you can’t measure it, you don’t know if you’re making progress.  So how much privacy should the state insist you give up in exchange for taxpayer support?

The government already uses data it holds to try and figure how to do this, with a huge Statistics New Zealand research database known as the “Integrated Data Infrastructure”.

Its plan is that now the agencies outside government, that it pays to provide social services, hand over their clients’ names, addresses, children’s details, and information about what help they got.

The idea is the government will be able to get closer to the individual story behind what help people need.

That means anyone from school social workers and budgeting advisors, to those who deal with violence or sexual abuse victims will have to share the information if they want their funding to continue.

And not surprisingly, there is some resistance to that.

Danny Mollan is in charge of building the Social Investment Unit’s Data Exchange, to share data between government agencies and contracted NGOs.

He said there had to be transparency in the data exchange.

“It allows you to record the specific purpose for which the information was provided, and literally put it next to that row of data so the organisation receiving it can keep a track of why the information was provided in the first place.”

“That doesn’t guarantee it won’t be used for the wrong reasons, but transparency is a pretty powerful tool.”

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley has signalled that some organisations, that had very sensitive data, might be exempt from sharing their files.

A working group is being set up to look at how to safely collect and protect the information.

It is expected to be complete by about December and Anne Tolley says it would be ready to do variations of contracts early in the new year.

The bottom line is that just because there are some cases where sharing data may be seen as terribly invasive or basically inappropriate, that should not form the basis for refusing to measure any of it.

Government can’t be expected to heave truck loads of money into a black hole and just measure the results by the amount of demand for more money.   It is entirely reasonable that the taxpayer gets to get more detailed information to ensure government assistance is well targeted and nobody is taking the mickey.



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