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Maharey Speech - Social Sience Research Centre

Hon Steve Maharey Speech Notes

The Social Development Agenda And The Importance Of Social Research

Presentation to mark the opening of the University of Canterbury Social Science Research Centre.


Thank you for the invitation to address you at the launch of Canterbury University’s Social Science Research Centre.

We are all members of an extended policy community, and I want to suggest that our community needs to engage in the contemporary debate about the nature of innovation, and the relationship between economic growth and social development.

Across the world, Governments are becoming increasingly interested in creating opportunities for different parts of their innovation system to interact - to ensure that ideas and learning flows between universities, research institutions, enterprises, and government agencies.

Most people will be aware of this type of development - but will probably associate it only with “high tech’ research and development for commercial application. Clearly innovative, leading edge, commercial research and development is a critical element in our strategy to maintain a healthy, vibrant and job rich economy. But as a Government committed to social justice, we also want to build social health and vitality - and that means also applying our best research and understanding to social investments.

In this context, I would like to commend the establishment of this Centre as a response to this desire for a multi-disciplinary research centres which aims to work co-operatively across institutional and agency boundaries.

The topic of my address today is “the contribution of research to social development’.

Firstly, I will outline our “social development” approach to social and economic policy. Following this I explore from the perspective of a policy-maker the requirements of social scientists to deliver the analysis and evidence required to achieve policy goals. In doing this I make some assessment of the current state of social science research in New Zealand and outline the steps we are putting in place to strengthen the contribution of research in improving social outcomes.

Social Development - What are we trying to achieve?

In the coming decades, New Zealand society will face many challenges arising from emerging social, economic and technological trends. These include the growing internationalisation of labour markets, the ageing population, changing family structures, and growing diversity in the ethnic composition of our population. Globalisation will be an especially big challenge to New Zealand given our dependence on primary production activities such as agriculture, our small size, and our distance from major population centres.

To achieve our key social outcomes, we require effective social development policies. Effective means ensuring that there is widespread participation and equality of opportunity. It means that children have the opportunity to achieve their potential. It means security for older people and for those who become unemployed or sick. It means people having real choices.

Social development is not only important for its own sake. Social development is also vital for economic growth.

Previous governments have argued that economic growth was the paramount concern, and that other aspects of social development (such as the elimination of poverty and exclusion) would either take care of themselves - the famous trickle down theory - or were a luxury that we could only afford once the economy had grown sufficiently. The evidence today does not support this. Our relative ranking has been consistently falling in the OECD league table of economic growth. The overall effect of this decline has been a reduction in the well-being of New Zealanders relative to that of others in the OECD. At the same time we have witnessed widening inequality between major sub groups in the population.

While there are a range of reasons for this, I believe a key factor has been our failure to invest effectively in sound social development, particularly education and training.

Social development provides the foundations for economic growth and transformation.

This is, I believe, an important point. Some of the failure of economic and social policies over the last decades can be traced to a misunderstanding of the relationship between economic growth and other aspects of social development.

So let me define social development.

Here we enter the realm of models and 'ideal types', but in summary a social development model has three defining elements:

- in terms of the economy it has a competitive bias, not a protectionist one

- it is employment friendly, and

- it is equitable

The social development model is about moving beyond the simple bifurcation of social welfare and economic development. It is about formulating a conception of social policy as productivist and investment oriented, rather than redistributive and consumption oriented.

James Midgely has argued, and very persuasively in my opinion, that,

"the social development approach not only emphasises productivist social policies and programmes but links them to broader attempts to harness the power of economic growth for social ends. Advocates of this approach believe that economic development is a powerful dynamic for progress. However, they also believe that if left alone, economic growth results in conditions of distorted development marked by conspicuous contrasts between wealth and poverty, and the exclusion of substantial numbers of people from participating in the productive economy. For this reason they advocate interventionist strategies that create employment, raise incomes, and contribute positively to improved standards of living"

It is about a shift from consumption oriented social programmes to those that invest in people and enhance capacity.

The heart of the social development approach is intelligent, planned investment in human capital. In a knowledge based society it is vital that people are able to lift their skills - not just once in a lifetime, but as circumstances demand. If those groups who face specific barriers such as sole parents, the young unemployed and people with disabilities, are to enjoy full social and economic participation investment in their skills is the most intelligent and lasting investment. This focus is reflected in initiatives such as second chance education, the Disability Strategy, improved development support for sole parents and mentoring / employment programmes designed to assist the young unemployed.

It is also important that investment fosters the growth of social and community capital, which refers to the richness of cooperative social relationships. Research indicates that the richer a community is in social capital the greater the likelihood of economic growth. Knowing this has led the government to implement such programmes as community employment, regional development, Heartland Services in provincial centres, and capacity building support for Maori and pacific communities. The aim is to back people to take leadership in activities leading to economic and social independence.

While investment in social capital does not necessarily lead to economically sustainable activity in itself, this can and does happen. Indeed it was community action, supported by the Community Employment Group, to build a public toilet which began the renewal of the troubled town of Moerewa in Northland. Suddenly cars stopped in town - rather than speeding through - shops and cafes started doing good business, jobs were created and people felt good about their town.

Of course, for many people participation will be blocked by a range of practical problems. Issues such as childcare, transport, debts, health issues and low self-esteem can drive exclusion. Removing these obstacles is a vital part of any modern development policy.

Obstacles can often arise from local community issues. Communities that experience very high levels of crime, drug abuse, violence and other social problems often find it difficult to draw people into social and economic activities. This is why, for example, the housing policies of the government are addressing the broader issue of community renewal. Housing New Zealand is involved in projects in regions like Northland and big estates in Auckland to change the social climate people live in as prelude to more extensive social and economic development.

Smart social development investments can and do lead to economic and social dividends.

Research in New Zealand

Which brings me to the importance of social research.

Continuing to make the right investments in social development requires high quality social policy advice. And this means we must have high-quality social research.

There have been, however, significant problems in the provision and uptake of social research, particularly that which supports the development of social policy.

Work undertaken by the newly formed Ministry of Social Development and the Ministry of Research Science and Technology during 2001 identified a lack of capacity and capability in the social sciences. This was seen to be limiting the amount of policy-relevant social research being undertaken.

The problems have been stated in a number of ways over some period of time. In brief, the major problems are:

- under funding for social research;

- a historical lack of demand for, and use of, good social policy research and knowledge within government social policy agencies;

- the absence of a critical mass of researchers involved in researching social phenomenon and issues;

- constraints on access to data in official statistical collections;

- a lack of focus in our research effort with regard to critical social issues;

- poor communication between departmental policy officials and external research providers about what information is required for social policy development;

- isolation of individual researchers both within departments, across universities and with end users;

- limited involvement in cross national research efforts;

- variable quality in research output; and

- a very real gap in evaluation capability and effort. In particular a lack of independent assessment of the effectiveness of government policy and programmes.

There is often an assumption made that research which underpins social policy must necessarily be social science-based. However while this connection undoubtedly exists, it is an extremely complex one and is not necessarily exclusive. Social policy could be said to cover the whole gamut of governmental and community interests, including the building and maintenance of physical infrastructure and management of the natural environment.

Similarly, social science covers a huge range of disciplines. I include the range from sociology and demography to economics, impact assessment and organisational development. Yet not all of these disciplines are widely regarded as being equally relevant to social policy. A surprising number of people construe social science as dealing only with questions of social behaviour and equality of access.

The barriers to communication, co-working and understanding are many and are embedded in our institutions, our jargon and in our acceptance of narrow definitions of social science.

We have a number of initiatives underway to remove these barriers. And as a consequence increase the contribution research, particularly social research, can make to the achievement of our social development goals.

Towards Solutions

Let me remind you of the shared vision that has come through the Growth and Innovation Framework released by the Prime Minister on February 12. In the framework, the vision for our country is:

- A land where diversity will be valued and reflected in our national identity;

- A great place to live, learn, work and do business;

- A birthplace of world changing people and ideas;

- A place where people invest in the future.

That vision sees New Zealanders as:

- Optimistic and confident about our country’s future;

- Celebrating our successes in all walks of life;

- Creating globally competitive companies;

- Committed to sustainable development;

- Gaining strength from the Treaty of Waitangi as our nation’s founding document.

What are some of the steps we are taking to improve the capacity and capability of research to help achieve this vision?

One way to increase the scope of the research is to adopt a networking approach in order to tap into the capacity of the broader social research community in New Zealand.

Hence, the Government established the Tertiary Education Advisory Commission (TEAC) to advise it on the strategic direction for tertiary education and to draw linkages with wider government policy. In July 2001 TEAC, outlined key priorities for the tertiary sector for the next 3-5 years and a framework for allocating resources. One of the priority areas involved a greater focus on supporting high-quality, world-class research by enhancing tertiary research quality, capacity and linkages.

A new system for funding tertiary research provides an opportunity to actively promote linkages through the structures and the behaviours rewarded. At the same time it will be important that a base level of research funding is available across the tertiary sector to ensure that “degrees are taught mainly by people engaged in research”.

In this context, TEAC indicated its support for centres of research excellence in promoting world-class discovery research. We have recently established a contestable fund for investment in centres of research excellence in tertiary institutions. No doubt many of you await the final outcome of the application process with a level of interest similar to my own.

The essence of TEAC proposals for reform of the tertiary system is to encourage tertiary institutions to specialise in areas of strength, by a system of profiling and performance based funding. A key recommendation, of particular interest here, was that the current enrolment-driven 'research top-ups' that institutions receive should be reconfigured into a performance-based research fund. We are still considering the details of this and other TEAC's proposals.

I do believe that funding programmes must favour and reward multi-disciplinary teamwork. New knowledge is often produced at the interface where disciplines meet, rather than at their core. The knowledge needed to solve a particular problem may reside in many places - non-government organisations, industry, government, and research institutions in every field. Our challenge is the facilitation of these linkages.

Strategies for Improving Social Policy Research Effort

In 2000 the Minister of Research, Science and Technology and I jointly agreed to review the knowledge base for social policy. This review (known as the “Improving the Knowledge Base for Social Policy (IKB) Project’) sought to improve the quality and quantity of knowledge necessary to underpin social policy decision making in the future. The Minister of Statistics joined the Ministerial review group and agreed to look at ways of improving of access to existing official data (especially to non-government researchers).

As a result of the IKB Project, in August 2001 Cabinet agreed to a package of policy initiatives to address the problems with the social policy knowledge base. Some of these initiatives are dependant on successful budget bids, whilst others are being pursued within existing departmental baselines.

Critical to this package of initiatives has been the establishment of a framework which defines for researchers Government’s key social policy knowledge needs. In this framework, seven priority knowledge theme areas are identified:

- The changing nature of work;

- Developing human capabilities - knowledge and skills;

- Disparities between groups - how to change the picture;

- Enhancing positive social outcomes - developmental risk and protective factors;

- Measuring and understanding social well-being;

- Social connectedness; and

- Social and cultural identities.

In developing the knowledge theme framework, the Government:

- wants to provide a clear signal to social researchers about where to focus social research investment.

- seeks to increase research on the causes of persistent and negative social outcomes for individuals, groups and generations of New Zealanders.

- wants to develop greater knowledge of the complex dynamics of social processes and how people, situations and outcomes develop and change over time.

- seeks information useful to the design of new government interventions and on effective ways of working across sectors and with communities in their delivery.

- aims to improve the links between social sector research and policy making.

The Minister of Research, Science and Technology recently agreed to these knowledge theme areas being used by MoRST in allocating the Cross Departmental Research Pool. We also agreed to their use as a guide for the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FRST) and the Health Research Council (HRC) when they allocate their social research output class funding.

I am also aware that you are looking to adopt these theme areas as a framework for your own Masters in Social Policy course and I commend you for this initiative and look forward to the further articulation of research in these areas.

As government is the primary direct purchaser of social research in New Zealand (either from internal or external research providers), greater co-ordination of the research spend by social policy agencies is likely to lead to improvements in the incorporation of research and evaluation information into social policy development. Moreover, the Government is interested in improving the alignment of its social policy research purchase around known policy priorities. One of the ways of doing this has been to establish a government group tasked with improving linkages between departmental research priorities.

The Social Policy Evaluation and Research Committee (SPEaR) has been given a mandate to oversee government’s social policy research purchase. In particular:

- developing research agendas to meet identified social policy knowledge gaps;

- assuring the quality and relevance of government-purchased social policy research; and

- integrating research and evaluation information into evidence-based policy development.

It is expected that SPEaR will disseminate information relevant to the government’s social policy research agenda and ensure key public sector and social policy research stakeholders are informed of their activities and, wherever practicable, given an opportunity to participate in discussions.

In undertaking this role I have asked that SPEaR develop a website to provide information on government social policy research, including cataloguing what research is being undertaken in the government sector, as well as providing a portal to research findings, and research databases. More importantly, I want to see such a tool build communities of interest nationally and internationally around best practice, and key areas of social research.

Improving the co-ordination and communication between social policy officials and the social policy research sector should lead to a greater shared understanding of the government’s social policy research needs, a better focus of research effort and a sharing of ideas about new research techniques and overseas research directions. In addition, building improved relationships between social researchers and policy advisers should also lead to a better understanding of the differing perspectives of researcher and policy maker.

Accordingly, the Ministry of Social Development is currently organising the Social Policy Research and Evaluation Conference 2002 entitled “Connecting Policy, Research and Practice’. The first in a biennial series of conferences, the objective of the conference is to promote the continued production of high-quality, policy-relevant social research in New Zealand by improving the linkages between government advisers, social service providers and social policy researchers and evaluators. This should become a major point for the New Zealand social policy and social research community to come together.

In addition to these initiatives we are looking at processes to facilitate improved access by bona fide researchers to official data and data held or collected by government agencies.

Critical to addressing capability and capacity issues in the Social Sciences is the lack of contestable funding for social science research. As a consequence I am currently working with Pete Hodgson (as Minister of Research, Science and Technology) to see what can be achieved in this area within what are very tight funding parameters for Government.

I also want to see stronger linkages between social policy agencies and the social research sector through better access to raw social data, programmes of staff exchanges, and secondments. Sabbatical placements with government social policy agencies should be seen as equally important to academic researchers as working in overseas research institutions. Similarly, research institutions should give consideration to bringing into their departments and faculties those involved in policy development and government research in order to build the dialogue and work together to develop the critically needed knowledge base.

The Future of Social Research

In the last two decades, we have seen the dominance of viewpoints that have equated the quality of life only with a person’s income (as opposed to health and life expectancy for example). Moreover, participation in markets rather than families and communities were the overriding concern.

Clearly income is a critical influence over a person’s participation in society, but there are a number of other determinants. Good health, knowledge, freedom, and the strength of ones networks and supports are also key influences over a person’s ability to participate in society - and the economy.

I believe there is a significant challenge for social researchers in New Zealand. We are embarking upon major changes in social assistance, education, health, justice, and in our collaboration with the voluntary sector.

To ensure these and future changes are effective, both government and the community need to be informed by research and analysis about the social institutions of our society.

We need to ensure that the empirical evidence available for policy is not just about the economy, but also about the rich fabric of our society that supports and underpins economic activity. We need to know about families, different cultural groups, our languages - and the impact of Government policy on key social outcomes. Just like the economic profession, we want to have social scientists joining the public service, and for the profession to be undertaking empirical research relevant to policy development.

The launch of this Centre today is to be commended. I applaud your initiative and look forward to the particular contributions this Centre will make to the social development journey.


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