Defending social services and fighting the real enemy

A really interesting article on the government’s proposed changes to child protection legislation at Re-Imagining Social Work, looking specifically at the political context and the especially damaging impacts they could have on Māori families:

The current new and more sophisticated push for public sector privatisation (pushing the market onward to fresh feeding grounds) is premised upon the logic of independent reports, such as Better Public Services, which are, in fact, saturated with political bias.

There is an undertone that public services are failing – particularly for the most vulnerable among us (how particularly sad). In part, this is a spin on one of the oldest privatisation gambits – if you run public services down enough, predictions of failure become self-fulfilling.  Alleged failure is linked to the assertion that we don’t know enough about the drivers of poor outcomes. I wonder what it is that we don’t know, but I am guessing the fact that poverty is directly related to the unfair distribution of wealth and opportunity in our society is something which the Commission would prefer us not to think about. The argument is that social services are expected to solve social problems. If they don’t, social services are at fault.  So … disadvantaged New Zealanders are disadvantaged because of under-performing social services. Are you with me so far?  The answer lies, of course, in innovative flexible capitalism.

There’s been some recent comment on the left about the people who work in this environment. And like I said in Don’t despair, I get the temptation to go for the soft targets – in this case, the people who work on the frontlines. It’s easier to swear at the person on the other end of the phone, giving you the bad news about your allowance or demanding more pointless paperwork, than the convoluted system of politicians and processes and decision-making which got you and them here.

But they aren’t formulating these brutal policies, they aren’t deciding where the funding is spent or cut, they aren’t setting the narratives which enable and encourage a punitive culture instead of a supportive one.

In fact, all we do when we attack the public servants at the coalface is play into the government’s hands and make it only easier for them to review, restructure and privatise our important social services into nonexistence.

Again, like I said in that previous post:

We have to remember that a defining part of being on the left and being progressive and believing in social justice is that we have faith in people. We know people are fundamentally good. We know humans are social animals who form communities and friendships and look out for each other, when they’re not being hammered every day with rightwing narratives about bludgers and self-interest and YOUR taxpayer dollars being wasted on those parasites.

I know that the people working in our public services want to do a good job. They want to ensure people get the support they need. Of course they want kids to eat, of course they want families to have homes.

But when this government decides people needing support don’t have consistent case managers who know their background, they deliberately made it harder for people with complex needs to get all their entitlements. When this government chooses to load people up with debt because they need emergency housing and the only thing available is a hotel – because a previous version of this government decided to sell off our state houses – they make it impossible for people to ever get out of a shitty situation. When this government decides to classify solo parents and people with chronic illnesses as “Jobseekers” regardless of their circumstances, they deliberately prop the door open to errors and mishandling and ridiculous amounts of paperwork.

When this government cuts and cuts and cuts and applies “sinking lid” policies to staff numbers even when there’s an economic crisis going on and more people than ever need to access public services, there is only so much the people on the frontline can do. They are working damned hard often for bloody low pay and they’ve got all the worries about rent and the power bill and school “donations” and getting through the week, same as the rest of us.

Let’s focus our anger where it needs to be: on the government which sets the course, and on the rightwing propaganda which justifies it.


No apologies for this one – I was a teen of the 90s and a WWE Smackdown fan during the glorious Vicki Guerrero/LayCool era.

How we got here

When I saw this article about the Takapuna Kathmandu store deliberately destroying clothing, sleeping bags and tents before disposing of them, I started thinking about how the hell we got into this situation.

To give full credit to Kathmandu, they responded quickly on social media saying they would look into the practice and disavowing that it was company policy. But someone, somewhere along the line decided this was an OK thing to do. And as the story spread, people talked about other incidents – shoe stores slashing apart unwanted items, supermarkets discarding perfectly edible food and pouring bleach on it to stop desperate, hungry people from raiding their rubbish bins.

Right now, New Zealand is a country where families are living in cars and kids are going to school hungry. To have retailers destroying perfectly good, but “unsaleable” stock, especially food or clothing, is just unconscionable.

On the other side of things we have organisations like Kaibosh and Te Puea marae providing amazing, inspiring care and support for people in need – but it shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. And it didn’t used to be.

A long time ago in New Zealand we all, through public services run by the government, ensured every family had enough money to feed their kids and a safe house to live in. We used to make people’s jobs secure and support people who weren’t able to work.

We knew some things were too important to leave in the hands of private companies whose first priority was profit. We knew together, as people who are part of a community, we could help each other. And the government, or the state, was the best instrument of that – because it wasn’t driven by making a quick buck, because it was accountable to the people.

We lost that. But we didn’t lose it by accident. It was by design.

Blame whoever you want, the point is that we were told, and began to believe, that the private sector was more efficient that the government. That the motivation of monety – the very reason we had taken these essential services off the market in the first place – would deliver “efficiencies” and “better targeted services” and “more responsive organisations.”

We have case after case showing how untrue this is. Serco. Compass. Telecom. Tranz Rail. Bank of New Zealand. New Zealanders end up paying more and more, either directly or through goverment bonuses, for less and less.

Yet it’s still the received wisdom, ingrained further and further as the National Party undermine the public services we have left, deliberately underfunding and straining them to breaking point so they can triumphantly declare, “See? The government can’t provide these services! Best sell them off.”

The end result? Someone overseas is making a lot of money, and children here in Aotearoa are living in cars, going to school not with empty lunchboxes – with no lunchboxes at all.

And because New Zealanders are caring, compassionate people, we step up. We open our doors and put our hands in our pockets

Imagine if we could pool all those resources across the country and had a single organisation with the knowledge and leverage to ensure every kid gets breakfast and every family has a home. An organisation motivated by providing good lives for people, not payouts for shareholders.

We could call the organisation, “government”. We could call those resources we all chip in, “tax”. We used to know what those things meant, before we got to where we are now. Together, we can decide to go somewhere else.


Related reading: Simon Louisson at The Spinoff on why the left has to stop being apologetic about taxes.

The myth of focusing on front line services

I saw a shocking thing on Twitter yesterday:

A National Party minister admitting that the state has responsibility for something? Ridiculous!

Of course there’s a sting: the way “frontline” services are specifically mentioned.

This is another of the great National Party myths: that frontline services are vital, important, definitely necessary – but of course we can’t just throw money at them or they’ll end up bloated and wasteful and inefficient, like all those back office services we slashed to the bone.

key on public services

It’s fairly smart marketing. Very few people want to see a massive reduction in the public services they use – no one wants to see DOC scrapped or higher teacher:student ratios or longer hospital waiting lists. So when DOC faces cuts, it’s “office-based jobs” that are going. When they’re mashing agencies together willy-nilly it’s “[reducing] duplication of roles and back office functions“. When they decide to focus on preventative healthcare, it’s literally because “back-office cuts will no longer produce the savings required“.

We’re all just meant to accept that “frontline” workers like social workers, police and nurses aren’t just important – they’re all that’s important. We’re meant to buy the idea that anything which isn’t “frontline” – dealing directly with troubled kids, arresting bad people, treating hurt people – is a waste of time and money. Like so many of National’s successful memes, it just feels natural to accept that we should focus on the “core business” and get rid of anything which isn’t “core”.

The problem is that the work doesn’t go away. The notes have to get typed. The paperwork has to get filed. The timesheet reports have to get run. The roster has to be set. Someone has to fix the damn printer. And when there’s no one left in “the back office” to do it, somebody working on “core business” has to stop, find the phone number for the bloody technician, and explain to their boss why they had to pay for a call-out when the only problem was the yellow toner had run out.

That is a waste of time and money. That is a drain on frontline services. And the downstream effects are serious. How can the government tell if targets are being met when the data isn’t being recorded the same way or stored in the same place? How can supervisors measure people’s performance or oversee their workloads when everyone’s so busy the record-keeping is mostly taking place in their heads? How can people access services if their case manager is off sick and literally no one else can find or read their file?

How often do I see journalists or activists complaining that this Department or that Ministry has refused to fill an OIA request because either they don’t have the resources to collate the information, or they don’t even know how to find it? At that point, cutting the back office isn’t just counter-productive, it’s undermining our democracy.

We’ve taken a baby-step forward with Tolley’s admission that at least some CYF work can’t be outsourced to operators like Serco. We have to keep challenging the idea that the rest of the public service is up for grabs, challenging the false economy of splitting “back office” functions away from “frontline” work, and challenging the government’s deliberate strategy of running down public services until the point they can say “look, the state sector can’t deliver. Bring on privatisation!”

Children’s wellbeing is more important than money

Not that our Prime Minister thinks so:

John Key told Morning Report today [Child, Youth and Family] would undergo a structural overhaul following a review by the senior public servant Paula Rebstock.

He did not rule out a future role for the private sector.

“I don’t think we’re seriously talking about the private sector taking control of all the children, but if there is some small function they could do, maybe, I’d have to see what that is.”

Come on, people. We can all read between the lines on that one, can’t we?

This is par for the course for this government. Paula Rebstock’s background includes the Welfare Working Group report which suggested forcing people who have a child while on a benefit to look for work when the baby is 13 weeks old. She led a half-million dollar “witch-hunt” into the leaking of documents detailing what an utter botch Murray McCully made of restructuring MFAT.

They’ve already discussed social impact bonds, i.e. “how to let private companies make money off bullying sick people”. They’ve already driven Relationships Aotearoa into the ground. They’ve tried and failed to make ACC look weak and in need of private sector expertise. It’s the same tune every time.

Ports of Auckland: still totally not arrogant

Oh my god. I thought Chevron’s condescending “We Agree” ad campaign was the peak of companies-talking-down-to-people-and-ignoring-the-actual-criticisms-levelled-against-them. But Ports of Auckland – whose CEO Tony Gibson was protesting only days ago “aren’t arrogant as a company” – have blown that one right, if you’ll pardon the phrase, out of the water.

As tweeted by Deborah Pead:

poal arrogant

“The big drill came in big pieces on a big boat.” If you can read that out loud without doing a Suzy Cato impression, I’ll be very impressed.

The point of this kind of PR fluff is to make people feel good about the company – so you’ll forget the fact that they’ve tried to force their workers onto individual contracts and tried to sneak through extensions to the wharf which narrow the harbour and block the view from Queen’s Wharf – which is now an important public space that Ports of Auckland were paid $40 million for.

As an Aucklander-turned-Wellingtonian, I cannot emphasise enough what a difference having an open, public, walkable waterfront makes to the quality of life in a CBD.

And as a communications professional, I’m gobsmacked that POAL thinks talking down to Aucklanders like they’re toddlers is a good way to rebuild their reputation.