The State must serve
Is the government’s flagship Social Investment approach simply the “incremental privatisation of social services?”
When journalist Richard Harman posed this description to newly-appointed Social Investment Minister Amy Adams she pushed back, responding that it’s actually about “this Government having a much stronger recognition and belief that the Government isn’t best to do everything.”
The Minister’s response gets at one of those contentious political questions that never goes away—the role of government. It’s a litmus test for our political allegiances and usually described in size-terms—if you like big you vote red; small and you vote blue.
But her reply focusses on fit and function rather than size. Who is the closest and best-equipped to solve the social problem at hand?
“At some point,” the Minister continues, “you have to get to a situation where you identify the families who need help, and we have to get to a point where we can go up a driveway and change a life.”
Going up a driveway, however, “is absolutely based on local relationships, you can’t run it from Wellington.” It must be someone trusted and respected from the community who understands those there and they feel comfortable with, she argues.
Wary of this or not, the Minister is employing the concept of “subsidiarity,” defined by the Oxford dictionary as “the principle that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level.” Tracing its origins back to the Latin “subsidium,” which literally means “to sit behind,” the term was used in the context of Roman military reinforcements called in to help and serve a failing unit.
Today, this means this means that larger institutions like the state are there to serve, help and coordinate when the smaller ones can’t or are unable to do the job themselves, and importantly, the intervention should be temporary with the purpose of restoring that original function. There’s more to healthy society than just autonomous individuals and the state, we need families, community organisations, unions, and churches too.
If the Social Investment approach is “just a warm and fuzzy cloak for seeking to shrink the state,” as a recent column in The Spinoff put it, it’s destined to fail. There are concerning signs here already, with the implementation, targets, and evaluation thus far seeming to focus more on reducing future Government spending rather than improving outcomes for our most disadvantaged.
If we ascribe to subsidiarity, it’s not about smaller government, but limited government. It’s about best fit.
Calling this privatisation is pointed yet blunt. While the government is great at dispensing cash, it just isn’t built for relationships, or to walk down driveways. There’re a lot of challenges inherent in empowering smaller organisations do the work of bettering people’s lives: data privacy and accountability just to name a few, but if done right, it pays off.
The Minister is saying the right things. Let’s hope she’ll lead the Social Investment Agency to do the right things too.