Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Novopay Exemplifies National's Governance


This National led Government is strong on ideology, weak on process and reluctant to accept responsibility. The Novopay debacle exemplifies all of these well.

When questioned about Novopay, National Ministers will never accept full responsibility. Initially the Government blamed Labour because they had employed Talent2 to develop a more sophisticated payroll system to the existing Datacom. This was a total cop out, because software and systems development is a fraught process and always involves a certain leap of faith. Labour's initial agreement recognized this and included the need for testing and trials before implementation.

There is a long history of difficulties in implementing new IT systems within many government departments under both Labour and National. The most important element in introducing any new system is the management of the implementation and the ability to exit something that is unlikely to work before there are serious consequences. There are many historical experiences like the Police INCIS system that all Ministers should be aware of and contingency plans need to be made if things turn pear shaped.

Stephen Joyce has just announced that the Government will be taking over the management of Novopay after almost two years of stress and wide-ranging issues. Joyce was able to admit that the implementation issues were not all Talent2's fault and that the Ministry had to share some responsibility. Cleverly, by blaming the Ministry he was able to shift the responsibility away from his cabinet colleagues and his own Government's ideological interference.

From 2008 the National led Government was determined to introduce widespread systemic change to the way that our public education system has operated. This was entirely ideological because our education system was one of the highest performing in the world (based on international assessments) and other sectors and Ministries were in far greater need of support and change. My most read post The Destruction of New Zealand's Public Education System (currently 33,000 views) documents the wider changes imposed on education, but I will focus on the particular elements that led to the Novopay mess.

National regarded the Ministry of Education as an overly expensive bureaucracy that needed trimming and cut its budget by $25 million (they gave private schools $35 million at the same time). This was done without any meaningful review and many experienced staff with useful institutional knowledge lost their jobs. New Ministry appointments after this time often did not always have education backgrounds or any experience of working in a school environment.

Ten months before Novopay went live the Government appointed Lesley Longstone to head the Ministry. Longstone was employed from the UK, she had no experience of the New Zealand education system and was obviously chosen because of her expertise in leading the introduction of Free Schools (the UK equivalent of Charter Schools). Longstone struggled in the role and was hardly the best qualified person to fix a ministry that had received one of the lowest ranking of all government departments when it was reviewed a few months earlier by the State Services Commission and the Prime Minister's office.

The Ministerial Inquiry into the Novopay launch identified a long series of poor decisions and lack of robust oversight. The project was well behind schedule and little of the planned testing and trials had occurred. What tests that had been done had identified numerous faults and yet Ministers English, Parata and Foss were advised that what ever was wrong could be easily rectified after implementation. Very little had been done to prepare schools ahead and there were woefully few staff assigned to field questions and problems that may arise after launching.

The launch was an unmitigated disaster, around 8,000 errors were identified and schools and staff were left suffering for months with a totally dysfunctional system that overpaid, underpaid or didn't pay at all. Help was almost non existent and many schools ended up paying staff from their own tight budgets and there was no system to return overpayments for many months.

In an effort to save money and implement a system before it was ready has ended up costing the tax payer $110 million, according to Joyce. Knowing this Government's manipulation of data it is likely to be much more, but even if we used this figure, that sum would have paid around 2,200 extra teachers for a year or almost 8,000 teacher aids.

Joyce and his colleagues have shifted the responsibility onto Talent2 and the Ministry for the huge waste of money and school disruption that has lasted two long years. This is disingenuous in the extreme and more passing buck that is common under this regime.

It was this Government and its Ministers that:
  • Substantially cut funding to the Ministry of Education without a robust review to support it.
  • Identified the Ministry of Education as poorly performing but did little to address this.
  • Employed someone to head the Ministry with limited local knowledge or relevant expertise.
  • Allowed the Ministry to be staffed with those with little experience of working in a school.
  • Trusted the advice of a Ministry with a poor record and asked few questions.
  • When the implementation went badly, delayed decisive action.
  • Refused any responsibility, but blamed Labour, school staff and the under-resourced Ministry for ongoing problems.
  • As with all other recent school changes, did not widely consult with the profession before hand. 
  • Relied heavily on the goodwill of teachers and schools over many months. 
  • Paid Lesley Longstone $268,000 in severance pay when many education staff went unpaid for several weeks and even months.
  • Allowed Hekia Parata remain as Minister despite a long history of failure and against public wishes (she is still highly ranked in National's latest list)
No matter what National and its Ministers claim, Novopay is largely their fault, and taking responsibility and making apologies are not what this Government does readily. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Manipulated Data and the Art of Deception


The National led Government are desperate to present the good news stories to promote the success of the past six years of their governance. They have increased the budget and the numbers of their spin doctors to ensure that it is mainly positive messages that make into the public domain. The staff employed to support the Prime Minister and cabinet and their daily spin currently costs around
$22 million. There was an increase in the funding to support the PM and his cabinet by 18% in 2013. The support provided to the PM was seen in an email mistakenly sent to a journalist which reinforces  the PM's successful strategy of down-playing serious issues.

I have already looked at the differences between the spin and the reality in different sectors in an earlier post, Government Spin and Hidden Secrets, but thought that I could especially focus on how they are manipulating data and restricting its availability. If the government had a written strategy it would look something like this:

Just talk about the money being spent without context:

You will notice when any Minister is questioned about what they are doing to improve health or alleviating poverty etc. they will invariably talk about the money being spent. They know the general public see anything in the millions as being substantial spending and without a context it always sounds impressive.

Tony Ryall is especially good at this because when he states that the Government is spending $60 million a year on diabetes prevention it sounds good unless one knows that he has actually cut the investment from $70 million in 2008-9  and the treatment costs of our growing diabetes' epidemic will balloon to $1.78 billion in the next seven years. Tony Ryall often claims that his Government is spending more than any other on health, which also sounds great until one realizes that with a growing population and inflation, even larger increases would be necessary just to maintain the status quo in services. In fact health spending is is being cut over time in real terms. In a recent personal visit to the Invercargill hospital and chatting to staff I as told how they are constantly dealing with staffing and bed shortages and their situation is getting worse as more people struggle to afford GP fees.

Early childhood education had their budget cut by $400 million in 2010, which immediately increased costs to parents and reduced the numbers of qualified staff in centres. People have short memories and now the Government receives praise for slowly increasing ECE funding even though it hasn't returned to earlier levels. It has generously committed to an increase of $120 million over four years, which sounds generous unless you realize that it is still $280 million short from where it was.

The same thing happens with the environment. The Government is spending $87.4 million on cleaning up waterways, which sounds impressive except that they are investing almost five times more ($400 million) on irrigation schemes to expand dairying, the very industry that is causing the bulk of the deterioration of our water. No wonder the lowest target for water quality is only that it is fit for wading.

Restrict Science and Evidence.

Knowledge is power and the less people know the easier it is to push through ideological agendas that have no basis in evidence. Much to the consternation of our Commissioner for the Environment the Government wiped the five yearly, comprehensive state of the environment report. From now on instead of independently reporting and analyzing the obvious decline in our environment  the Government will control what is publicly released through its own ministry and the independent Environment Commissioner will comment on the findings and not lead the process as she did before.

Paula Bennet refuses to measure child poverty and so we can never know the real extent of the problem or measure progress. Addressing the symptoms and not the causes will never improve outcomes instead the Government has done little to improve substandard housing or low family incomes. It hasn't even achieved its own targets to reduce levels of rheumatic fever.

This Government has reduced the funding to statistics New Zealand shortly after the 2013 census was completed and this will obviously limit the capacity for analysis of trends since the last census in 2006.

It is also clear that the Government likes to cherry pick science and research and openly rejects anything that is in conflict with its agenda. This is especially true for environmental science where water scientist Mike Joy has been publicly discredited even though his actual science has not been disproved, despite the Prime Minister's claim that he could find an alternative view.

The Minister of Education also struggles to find relevant research to support her education initiates and generally rejects most of what comes from our local academics or quotes them out of context.

Deliberately Misrepresent Data

This government crows about the increases to New Zealand's average incomes to claim a general improvement in people's prosperity. The average can be easily lifted if some people earn substantially more. For instance if one person earned $250.000 a year and four people earned $25,000 a year the average income is $70,000 a year. The median is a more accurate indicator ($25,000), which is actually what the majority would earn.

Currently the median weekly income from all sources is $575 a week (29,900 a year). Almost all income earners in this country earn less than $29,000 a year. The large jumps in salary for those in management roles and the top end continue to lift the averages while those who are at the bottom have seen their incomes drop. The Mangere-Otahuhu board area has a median income of $19,700 and is a drop of 16% in real terms since the 2006 census. Despite average incomes are increasing, median incomes are dropping.

The Government also likes to promote the success of manufacturing in New Zealand but cleverly lumps primary goods with those that have added value. Our milk powder and logs have lifted exports considerably while other manufacturing sectors continue to struggle with our over valued dollar.

Introducing High Stakes Targets and Assessments

When the police were given targets to reduce crime then many became creative when recording crime to make sure their targets were achieved. While the government has been celebrating the reduction of crime in New Zealand under their watch it has been revealed the extent some have gone to in hiding the reality.

It was discovered that ACC employees were paid incentives to reduce the number of successful claims. National Standards and NCEA league tables shift the focus of teachers to lifting their school's achievement results. While it may appear achievement levels are increasing it is often because schools end up just teaching to the tests and not really meeting the individual needs of students. Martin Thrupp's qualitative research revealed a dangerous shift in school culture since the introduction of the curriculum narrowing National Standards.

It does make one wonder about the claimed drop in benefits being paid when recent research shows how difficult it is for desperate families to get their entitlements and those who don't have english as a first language find it particularly hard to meet or understand requirements.


The Government cleverly manipulates data to hide the extent of poverty the degradation of the environment and the success of our economy. We are told crime is down, child poverty is getting no worse, education achievement is up, the economy is booming and less people are on the benefit. When evidence is presented to show otherwise (often sourced from the parliamentary library), Government ministers just respond by saying "I don't accept that evidence" and generally follow with a statement beginning, "the reality is...". Of course most of us who live in the real world know that National's reality is a falsely constructed one.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Greens Make Kids A Priority Again!


Children have always been a major priority for the Green Party and it says something about the priorities of the current Government when child poverty, child neglect and family violence continue to be huge issues.

Today Metiria Turei announced the the last of our Party's three major election priorities and it focuses very heavily on an area that will make a huge difference to children and struggling families. By extending the 20 hours free early childhood education to two year olds it recognizes the financial pressures on families with young children.

An OECD study in 2010 revealed that New Zealand working families were having to spend 28% of their net income on childcare and this wasn't helped by the Government's $400 million cut to early childhood education. This gutting of the Early childhood budget reversed the attempt by Labour to bring the funding up to a similar level of other OECD countries: it drove up costs for families, forced many centres to close and made 100% registered and qualified teachers in centres unaffordable.

The Government also restricted choice for families when community based provision suffered the most from the cuts and many Pasifika communities that should have received the most support found themselves amongst the worst affected. What has also been concerning is the Government's support for corporate care and the subsidies provided for the likes of Kidicorp to set up in lower decile communities. Profit focused early childhood centres often maximize profits by saving costs on wages and manipulating the system for their own ends. This means commercial centres do not see having experienced and qualified staff as a priority.

Research shows that the benefits of early childhood education are dependent on the quality of the teachers and there is currently a minimum of 50% qualified staff and a cap of 80% for funding. There would be an outcry if hospitals were staffed in a similar way and yet the first years of a child's life are crucial for their future development. Skimping on the early years will actually have negative economic impacts in the future and the World Bank strongly supports investing in young children.

The Green Party will restore the goal of having 100% qualified staff in all centres and kindergartens and ensure the funding supports that. $297 million will be the initial cost and this will grow to $367 million over four years and will hopefully address the damage done by this Government and build a much stronger early childhood sector for the future. Every $1 we invest in early childhood education provides a $7 return, the investment is a no brainer. Our children and our families need and deserve this support and party voting Green will make it happen.


Friday, July 18, 2014

R&D is Shaping Southland's Future

Venture Southland's Steve Canny explaining the potential of methane capture to Russel Norman

Russel Norman spent today in Invercargill (interview 6:20 in) and he spent a good part of the time learning about the many projects on the go here that will provide Southland with a more diverse and sustainable economy. It was a timely visit because a few days earlier Russel had announced the Greens' ambitious Research and Development Policy (even receiving the Business NZ seal of approval).

It has been recognized that not all of Southland's agricultural land is suitable for dairying because many soils are not resilient to heavy stock numbers and the demands of the industry on our waters systems (both consumption and pollution) are unsustainable.

Venture Southland has researched a range of protein sources that can be produced well in our soils and climate and oats came out clearly in front. Southland was once known for its oats and we even had a processing factory based in Gore that was well known for its porridge. There will be some like myself who can still remember 'Sergeant Dan the Creamoata Man'

Gore Creamoata Factory

Oats can produce more protein per hectare in Southland, with fewer inputs, than dairy farming and there are a number of value added products like oat milk that would have strong markets amongst those who are lactose intolerant (especially Asia). Having a viable alternative to dairying will make our economy more resilient and growing oats, as an expanding industry, will take a lot of pressure off our environment.

Venture Southland is also involved with two significant projects that will soften the environmental impact of the expanding dairy industry. The first is the research and development of a methane capture system that has the potential to provide 70% of the energy needs of the average dairy farm. If it can operate well in Southland's cooler climate it could then be rolled out across the country and would substantially reduce our agricultural GHG emissions in an economically beneficial way.

Monitoring methane emissions from a Southland dairy pond.

The other project is an educational one being rolled out to farm managers. The Lean Project is a programme that supports farm managers to put in place efficient systems that not only increase profits but enables them to operate in a more sustainable way. Farms save money if they use less wasteful practices and if they manage their stock well then there will be benefits for the environment too. No matter how good the technology is, or the system are, it comes done to the people that operate them. Ongoing training and support is essential.

The future of the Southland economy is dependent on ensuring our existing industries become more sustainable and that we can add greater diversity to what we currently do. Investing in research and development, and sharing what results, is a big part of this.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

Keep Your Mouth Closed and Stay in the Boat!



Welcome to New Zealand, we have beautiful tree covered mountains, lovely beaches and rivers that look alright if you don't look too closely. I am your tour guide on this bus and I will hopefully provide you with some useful information and advice if you are a first time visitor to Aotearoa.

Our conservation parks are well worth a visit, but please check with Department of Conservation staff to make sure you avoid the parts where there is mineral exploration or the recovery of windfall trees. If you stick to the tourist tracks you should be all right.

We have some wonderful cities, but please don't try to do what you would in your home countries as we are the land of cars. I wouldn't advise trying to cycle as you would in Europe, or use our public transport, we have very few safe bike lanes and our public transport is often unreliable.

If you look to the right you will see what was once the habitat of the Maui's dolphin, the smallest in the world. They only became extinct last year and when we stop the bus you will be able to see pictures of them. On the horizon you will see a number of drilling rigs. I should also warn you not to walk on the beach when we stop as one of the rigs had a minor spill last year and there is still a lot of oil in the sand and the dead birds washed up on it look a little unsightly and don't smell very nice.

You will note as we drive through this farmland that there are lots of cows. Our diary industry is our largest export earner and we now have almost 7 million cows. Our Government has put a huge investment into irrigation and expanding the industry so we will see many on our travels. In answer to an earlier question, the lack of trees on our farms is because they get in the way of the farm irrigators.

We no longer offer fishing trips here because fish numbers have dropped considerably over recent years. At one destination there is an aquarium where you can see some of the few remaining native fish.

This afternoon you will have the opportunity to travel up a river on a jet boat. If you decide to do this trip I advise you to keep your mouth closed when there is a lot of spray and make sure you wash your hands afterwards because the water can be toxic if ingested. It is important that unless you are told otherwise, please stay in the boat!

The Green Party announced one of our major priorities for this election, we want rivers clean enough to swim in. I'm sure tourists would appreciate this too. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Beneficiary Families Must Suffer!


The National Party has a bottom line on an individual's status that is not negotiable: being unemployed is is totally unacceptable and anyone in that situation does not deserve support!

Being a beneficiary of the state is barely tolerated by this Government and anyone who decides to become one (most National Party members appear to believe that it is a status of choice) should not expect to acquire a benefit easily or live comfortably. If children are involved it is just their rotten luck that they have parents who can't provide a healthy home or nutritious meals from a weekly food budget of less than $30, even though around 285,000 children find themselves in similar circumstances.

Every time the Government is asked to explain what they are doing to support struggling families the same answer is given, paid work as the only real answer. We have moved on from a couple of generations ago when a stay at home mother was considered an honorable and worthwhile role. In those times the Family Benefit was paid to the mother to ensure that the money was spent on children and the home.

Despite the fact that providing superannuation to our elderly is the largest part of the welfare budget ($9 billion and increasing) the benefits paid to support children and families are much less and yet are considered unsustainable. We lead the OECD on the financial support of our elderly and we have the highest statistics for elderly employment and yet we allow 27% of our children to live in poverty.

Lindsay Mitchell is a blogger who is often quoted by those who support cuts in welfare support. Mitchell claims that the welfare state is "unsustainable economically, socially and morally". In one of her recent posts she actually recognizes the income disparity that exists for dependent families but refuses to acknowledge that the level of financial support should increase. Lindsay is adamant that if beneficiaries are paid a living allowance that it will just encourage them to remain dependent on the state and clever management can allow them to survive on little:

"Employment for existing sole parents, and deterrence for prospective, particularly young parents, is the most effective approach to reducing child poverty. In that respect Jonathan Boston and Simon Chapple's prescription is half right. But a strong and competitive economy capable of producing the necessary jobs won't result from the greater taxation and wealth transfer the authors advocate.

"A prevailing attitude that only government can solve child poverty is actually a large part of the problem. If there is a solution it largely lies in the hands of those who choose the circumstances in which their children will be raised."

Again Mitchell supports the view that struggling parents, especially sole parents, deliberately choose the circumstances that they find themselves in. This is obviously disconnected from reality and doesn't recognize those families suffering from redundancy or sole parents attempting to support children when they have an illness, a disability or have left a violent relationship. Having to look after a disabled child is also a huge commitment and when family members have attempted to take on the main caring role, they have been denied support. No family deliberately chooses to have a family member with a severe disability and yet if they choose to look after them themselves they are effectively choosing a life of restricted means. To force so many families to a life on the edge of existence and reliance on charity is just cruel. 

We are now a low wage economy where even families that are fully employed need state support to pay for the increasing costs of housing and to cover food and electricity bills. Beneficiary families receive little extra support and have even been excluded, against advice, from receiving anything extra on the birth of a baby. When questioned about the unfairness of the approach, Bill English responded that the decision was, "consistent with the Governments belief that paid employment was the best way to lift most vulnerable families." 

Even those who earn income by dubious means or defraud the state through avoiding tax have greater respect under this Government than anyone unfortunate enough to need a benefit. Overpayment errors were once placed in the fraud category for beneficiaries and they generally have to shoulder the responsibility of departmental mistakes. The costs of tax fraud far exceeds benefit fraud and yet the stigma that most beneficiaries are useless bludgers is a continuing theme and 285,000 children are forced to suffer because of it.

At every turn beneficiaries and first time parents are given the hard message that being in employment is more important than caring for their family. The fact that access to high quality childcare may be an issue and that well paid part-time work is almost impossible to find is ignored. There should be recognition for caring for the disabled and our children and there should be dignity in fulfilling this role, not shame.   

Postscript: Some qualitative research from the Auckland City Mission and academics, that involved interviewing 100 low income families over three years, effectively dispels many of the myths spread by the right. Most beneficiaries want to work and properly support their children but find multiple barriers are put up to block them from being successful. 8 key barriers are listed and some solutions suggested. I hope the Government doesn't do what it normally does and ignores this well informed advice. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

The National Party's Dictionary


The National Party uses a dictionary that is foreign to mine because it obviously has different meanings for a number of words. I have used the meanings from my large Reader's Digest 'Word Power' dictionary (written in conjunction with with the Oxford Press) for a comparison:

Anthropogenic Climate Change

RD/Oxford Press: originating in human activity

National: Gerry Brownlee, "...is an interesting concept." Bill English, "...we should uncritically follow the the Green's extreme views about these things, well, many of us don't."

Conservation:

RD/Oxford Press: Preservation or restoration of the natural environment and wildlife.

National: "Conservation leadership for a prosperous New Zealand."  (Victoria Forest Park)

Consult

RD/Oxford Press: Seek information and advice from, or seek permission or approval from.

National: Just telling others what will happen (Phillipstown School, Woman's Refuge, Gisborne District Council, Education profession).

House

RD/Oxford Press: A building for human habitation.

National: An aspirational possibility only for many and a source of capital gain for a few.

Mothering 

RD/Oxford Press: Look after kindly and protectively.

National: Unless you are a beneficiary and the child is over three years.

Poverty

RD/Oxford Press: The state of being very poor.

Paula Bennett, National: "...actually children move in and out of poverty at times on a weekly basis."

Rivers 

RD/Oxford press: A large natural flow of water traveling along a channel to the sea, a lake or another river.

National: Something for wading and boating and irrigating dairy farms.


I got the idea from Ambrose Bierce's classic The Devil's Dictionary written between 1881 and 1906.

Beirce's definition for politician: n. An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organised society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail as the trembling of the edifice.