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Cultural Rethink Required, An Auckland Perspective

by Selwyn Manning

Isn't it interesting how when under the spotlight a position of hindsight is quickly assumed. We are talking here of course about the WINZ fiasco.

Yesterday’s public acceptance speech by WINZ chief executive Christine Rankin was a carefully sculptured piece of what great things can be learned when one is under the Nation’s microscope.

Ms Rankin states she accepts State Services employer, Wintringham's conclusions that there “was” a lack of financial discipline in organising the Wairakei event, and that the Wairakei episode “has” highlighted some deficiencies in WINZ’s system of financial accountability.

And reassuringly, Ms Rankin says: “I take these findings very seriously.”

Well praise be to hindsight. Perhaps now responsible foresight can be discovered.

Now let us regress for a hypocrisy requires highlighting.

For so long, families that require assistance from our Government's social agencies have been made too feel like parasites at the tax payer's trough.

The stigma has been reinforced from all levels of society. The terms “dole bludger”, “Solo Mother” and “sponger” are well entrenched in the Kiwi vocabulary.

This stigma has been advanced with governmental funding of television advertisements. The “dobb them in” series of advertisements levelled suspicion upon all beneficiaries. The spot-light was turned on them, and the suggestion was for all to be diligent, for those at the trough may be "ripping off" WINZ by drawing benefits in excess of their entitlements.

It was of course theatre. Actors stared in the 30-second-situation-dramas. But the moral was clear - beneficiaries should be watched. And the message was negative and bereft of trust.

Funny how things turn out.

Now I am not suggesting that any alleged mismanagement on the part of WINZ hierarchy is akin to a crime. Heaven forbid. But the end result is the same. The money of New Zealand tax payers has been squandered.

These recent revelations of WINZ management excesses surely amaze. Looks much worse in reality when summarised; the living it up at the Masters of Business conference in Auckland, the chartered flight junkets whisking WINZ top-brass off to a conference at Wairakei, the theatrics of agency heads descending Tarzan-like down into the crowd in what is said to be a leadership building exercise, need we go on? What a job. What fun for those employed there. What a waste of tax payer's money.

Imagine what could have been done with the hundreds of thousands of dollars had it been directed into the area of need the tax payer thought it was destined for.

But what this money has bought, is clarity, and the wisdom of hindsight.

Here’s Ms Rankin again: “I have already initiated a process of reviewing all financial policies and procedures within WINZ. That programme is underway and will be taken right through the organisation. Having said that, I think it's really important to remember the very special job that WINZ has to do.”

Fiscal prudence is a concept we have all heard much about in the past eight years. However, it is now clear, fiscal prudence as initiated by the “Mother of All Budgets” was too narrow in its reference. If efficient management of social spending was considered on a multi-level, beyond the bureaucracy of the time, to include issues attached to the nature of management, the culture within upper management, then perhaps we would not be facing this WINZ fiasco that is consuming the passions of so many today.

But clearly the corporate mirror-glass mentality has continued to thrive within the upper levels of our state agencies. It is fair to say such a mentality has been fostered.

Hindsight has shown there is no room for gross waste and inefficient social pursuits within the corporate world. There certainly is not any room, nor should there be any tolerance for such wastage in the public service and Government agency networks.

What message has this WINZ fiasco offered those seeking assistance from WINZ?

Here’s the voice of a woman caller from Otara to Newstalk ZB this morning: “I’d love to go to Taupo and trout fishing and walk across those lakes. But in all honesty I don’t think it helps all those customer service officers, or whatever they call themselves these days.

“About Christine Rankin, I think she should be made to feel just as bad as beneficiaries do when they go into income support. I have seen many many people in tears when asking for a sum of $50. The thousands and thousands they spend on these exercises is just disgusting.”

Such a view is understandable.

In the pursuit of fiscal prudence, benefit cuts and social policy restrictions which were born of the 1991 Budget certainly fired the starter gun for a rush on feedbanks, and a reliance on voluntary organisations within the southern Auckland network.

Gains have since been made in the contracting out of social services to community organisations. And streamlining of funds into One-Stop-Shops should be applauded. But entrenched poverty continues to show in official reports on health status, in morbidity rates as compared to socio-economic status, in overcrowding of tenancy houses, of blowouts of hospital budgets, and in reports of a continuing rise of contagious and deadly diseases.

At the end of the day, at the other end of the scale, thousands of families within the high population urban environs of the greater Auckland region have suffered.

This is not tripe. This is reality.

Considering the revelations of WINZ management excesses, how can anyone at WINZ look a mother of young children in the eye and say no to her requests for assistance when the landlord has taken all the money she had? What discontent have the heads of WINZ caused by the actions now revealed in the mass media?

Perhaps hindsight will now provide a platform for a rethink. Instead of biting the hand that’s held out, perhaps fiscal prudence can be achieved in a very large measure through clear, considered, and dedicated management of those charged with managing agencies like WINZ.

A future position will judge the gains so made.

But this disconcerting thing is clear. Those who have been charged with the responsibility of managing the hard earned money provided by tax payers for those among us who need it most, have abused our trust.

Trust is a hard earned mantle, and a trust broken is inexcusable. Those in WINZ who are responsible for this waste should be judged by the same standards that they encouraged in the "dobb them in" television campaign. If they are not judged by their own standards then we surely have many miles to venture before this country nears the egalitarian ideals it promotes widely to have already achieved.

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