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Maharey Speech Building a truly inclusive society

Building a truly inclusive society

Steve Maharey Speech - Comments at the Ministry of Social Development National Leadership Conference. Te Papa, Wellington.

Introduction

It’s a hard road to building a truly inclusive society.

It takes vision. It takes guts. It takes sweat.

And don’t we know it.

Building an inclusive society is a leap forward in this country’s journey of social development.

Ideologically it sits well with New Zealanders - we want to live in country where all people have the rights, benefits and responsibilities that go alongside belonging. In practice, it’s a bit like teaching an elephant to dance.

Over the next two days we’re taking stock of how far we’ve traveled on that ‘hard’ road and setting our focus on the things that will take us forward.

One theme you’ll recognise coming through the presentations of the speakers who follow is that the keys to success on our journey are partnership and connection.

As you all well know, social well-being does not happen in isolation. Whether it’s a partnership with other government agencies, community leaders or groups, or with individuals, it boils down to connections between people. People who share a common vision and who are committed to working together to achieve it.

This morning I want to reflect on the progress we’ve achieved in key areas - often in partnership with others - and touch on the challenges of the future.

A Promising Start

Our journey starts with a vision.

In establishing the Ministry 18 months ago the government wanted to provide impetus to the building of a country where all people can participate. No matter their age, no matter their ethnicity, no matter their circumstance.

This is the challenge we have set you. Though we're still in relatively early days, the signs are looking promising that our journey will eventually reach its destination.

The first promising signal is that you kept operating effectively during a time of tumult and considerable change. In fact, not only did you maintain stability during the merger, you achieved a number of improvements!

Special Benefit improvements

The point of a welfare system is to provide those in need with a 'leg up'. As longtime supporters of fair play, New Zealanders extend this expectation to our welfare system: any 'leg up' needs to be equitably distributed.

Some 7,000 people can attest that you've well answered that demand for fair play over the last nine months. They're the additional people who began receiving the Special Benefit. People who previously may have missed out on their entitlement.

You can be proud of your achievement in removing the inconsistencies in the administration of this benefit and shoring up the application process so that people are better informed.

You can take more pride still in having built a stronger working relationship with the Special Benefit Working Party. It is through such relationships that we can ensure that the equality of this country's 'leg up' meets the standard expected by fair-minded kiwis.

Stable employment improvements

Also important in the kiwi psyche is work. Aside from income, work gives people a sense of purpose, a sense of achievement.

Some New Zealanders cannot work. And the system is there to ensure their security.

Other New Zealanders, who are unemployed, could work but face considerable barriers to doing so.

Most of the remaining unemployed New Zealanders are both able and willing to work and are relying on the Ministry to help them achieve re-entry to the workforce.

The figures as at the end of December 2002 show that you are doing just that. The work you've invested in improving stable employment outcomes is taking effect. The number of clients staying off the register increased by over 2000 compared with the same period the previous year.

Though all employment bands are reflecting this improvement, what is most pleasing is that we’re also seeing this trend reflected in the figures for the long-term unemployed.

Work and Income’s great performance in placing record numbers of people in work was also reflected in increased stable employment figures for Mäori and Pacific Island clients. Especially young Mäori and Pacific Island peoples.

Both groups are showing increases of around three percent. Sounds small as a percentage, but in reality these increases see hundreds and thousands of young Mäori and Pacific Island people now in work.

This result directly reflects the hard effort I know you’ve invested in this area. It’s paying off.

The move from stable to sustainable

These employment achievements provide a sound springboard. At core, your success in increasing the level of employment delivers better economic health to the nation. But you’re also delivering self worth, pride and hope.

Getting people into the workforce is but the first step in the social development approach to employment. The future focus is to progress the move towards sustainable rather than stable employment, as this is the best route to genuine independence. I strongly encourage you to keep that momentum going.

To do so in the days ahead is certainly going to be a challenge.

In the past the focus has been very much on addressing unemployment and identifying the barriers individuals face to getting into work.

A strong and growing economy has now brought new challenges to the employment sector. The labour market forecasts from the first quarter of this calendar year have all pointed to the bite of labour shortages. And not just of skilled labour, but also of unskilled.

Looking further out there’s a need for government and business to work together as the labour market shrinks with an ageing population and economic success boosts demand for skilled motivated workers.

While a challenge, these factors present us with a very real opportunity to make further inroads in getting more New Zealanders who are currently outside the workforce into jobs.

The task ahead is to build the skills and capacity of unemployed people so that they can access these opportunities. And it’s hardly new that a focus on skills that further New Zealand’s knowledge economy are vital.

Once people are work-ready, they then need to be matched with the available positions. All this takes a much greater involvement of case managers in the lives of their clients.

Underpinning this activity is a further range of work addressing barriers such as the need for childcare and income adequacy. Over and above these issues, there’s a need to improve links between knowledge creation and workforce development, as these employment opportunities will not be sustained without further economic growth.

And that raises a world event that may have a substantial effect on our efforts.

While there is little doubt about the eventual outcome of the war in the Middle East, the impact is yet to be felt to any real degree.

We’ve seen markets and the price of crude oil rise and fall markedly on a whim. And this volatility is likely to continue for some time, leaving the business sector in a state of uncertainty – a sure disincentive for growth.

A short war followed by a speedy restoration of Iraqi oil fields would see much less impact on the global economy and therefore here. But at this point the duration and therefore the likely impacts are as easy to pick as the winning numbers in next week’s Lotto draw.

Irrespective of the outcome and impact of war, we face other challenges to economic health. Global markets have been showing signs of shrinking for sometime. And commodity prices have been falling.

These are factors over which we have no control. The task therefore is to continue our close monitoring of developments and their impacts to ensure we can respond in a way that continues to further our goals.


Delivery on disability issues

An inclusive society is one that gives equal voice to all its members. It is a society based on human rights, empowerment and participation. It is a society that values and celebrates diversity. And this is what we want for New Zealand.

In April 2001 the New Zealand Disability Strategy was launched. It primarily focuses on what government departments and other publicly funded organisations need to do to remove the barriers that people with disabilities face.

The release of the strategy put in train a process that saw the formal establishment of the Office for Disability Issues within the Ministry on 1 July 2001. And we were pleased to make the appointment of Dr Jan Scown as Director.

Mandated to provide policy advice and monitor the performance of the Crown sector, the Office and the strategy is already making an impact. There is a higher level of participation of people with disabilities on various advisory and reference groups. There is increased consultation between the disability sector and the government on policy matters that affect people with disabilities. Many departments have responded well to the strategy’s challenge to change attitudes, policies, practices and legislation. Though many of these changes are not complete, work is continuing. All departments have focused on infrastructure issues such as human resources, physical access, communications, staff training and information. And a number of departments have implemented improved consultation processes.

However, departments generally need to continue to improve consultation with the disability sector. Input from people with disabilities is pivotal, if we are to develop policies that better enhance their quality of life in the future.

Setting the direction for care and protection

Another group often in need of a stronger voice, especially when it comes to decisions impacting on their future, is that of children and young people. Investment in children and young people is a priority for this government. In doing so we are in fact safeguarding our own future.

Too often, though, headlines have heralded this country’s under-performance in this area despite the efforts of many individuals and organisations. This year we’ve begun the process to turn our emotional response to this under-performance into practical solutions.

The Ministry has led the taking of a big step towards improving the prospects of children at high risk because of child abuse, neglect, family violence or offending behaviour.

The release this year of Care and Protection Blueprint 2003 sets the course for improving the collaboration between protection and care agencies. It provides a vision for us all to work towards so that no one is working in isolation. The Blueprint effectively makes us all responsible – as individuals and as agencies – for improving child well being and preventing and responding to child abuse and neglect.

Developing the vision and the action plan required close collaboration of the care and protection community. Realising the goals will again require such commitment and partnership.

The Blueprint Steering Group, made up of sector representatives, is currently seeking feedback. I look forward to hearing their views on how we can ensure New Zealand is a great place for all our children to grow up.

Building a nexus of knowledge

One of the impediments to our pursuit of a social development approach was that our understanding of social conditions in New Zealand was formed on accepted but essentially statistically unsubstantiated assumptions.

We know, for example that Mäori and Pacific peoples are more likely to experience hardship. We know that people in work are going to enjoy better living standards than those who are not. We, know, too that older New Zealanders who’ve accumulated assets over their lifetime are better off. Basic stuff, but we had no statistically sound measure to quantify this somewhat innate knowledge.

GDP has been the one measure available to assess how well a country is doing. But it is a blunt instrument when you’re after the gritty detail of just what kind of life the regular New Zealand family is enjoying. Or not, as the case may be.

But now we have it. What’s more, it’s a world first.

Developed by the Centre of Social Research, the Economic Living Standards Index allows us to measure how New Zealanders feel about their circumstances and not just what those circumstances are.

The index looks at whether people are satisfied with their standard of living, whether their income meets their everyday needs and the extent to which people economise and what they choose to do without.

In conducting the benchmark research in the Living Standards Report we now know that 80 percent of New Zealanders experience comfortable to good living standards. We also know, that of the 20 percent of New Zealanders experiencing a lower living standard, Pacific Island peoples face the lowest.

Children living in such circumstances are not likely to get to a doctor or dentist, are lacking suitable or warm clothing and footwear, are sharing a bed and are missing out on extra curricular activities at school because of the cost.

We now have a defined picture of the difference between a comfortable life in this country and hardship.

When we combine the detailed view we get from this groundbreaking report with the broader view generated by other research undertaken by the Centre - such as the ongoing Social Report and the recently released Family Resilience report– we’re better placed to determine the needs of New Zealanders.

In better determining the needs, we’re better placed to developing the solutions to meet them.

From the Ministry’s perspective, such research provides the valuable grist for the policy mill, sharpening policies so they reach the heart of the causes of hardship and inequity.

But better still, this work has a wider reach. Available to other agencies, community groups and individuals, the Centre’s work will ensure we all keep plugged in to how we as a society are evolving. It provides the basis from which we can all build a greater understanding within New Zealand about where the successes are and where the needs are.

Finding custom-fit solutions for our unique circumstances is of prime importance. The living standards index I just mentioned is a great example of where our people have thought outside the square to create the tools we need. The old ‘number 8 wire’ attitude is still alive and well…and long may it last!

At the same time it’s important that we continue to assess international developments and how they may be applied here. It's also important that we use opportunities to share even controversial ideas to spark and broaden public debate; to galvanize ordinary New Zealanders into getting involved in the discussion of how we can build a better future for all.

Such are the opportunities I see being presented by the Social Policy Research and Evaluation Conference taking place later this month. The conference features an impressive selection of both international and local experts offering their insights on social research. With such an array of talent we can look forward to a stimulating exchange of knowledge.

This exchange can only strengthen the inroads the Ministry has achieved in its brief history. And I congratulate you on those achievements. The commitment and effort you've demonstrated over the last 18 months will stand you in good stead for the tasks ahead.

The Road Ahead

One area that continues to provide challenge is long-term unemployment. It’s an area that requires a continued focus on the initiatives that build people’s skills and capacity, that match people and jobs and address the barriers people face in committing to work.

The Ministry is moving to a service delivery format, which will provide the one-on-one support that will allow you to impact positively on the number of people who remain outside the workforce.

Cross-sector partnerships

But, as I said earlier, social wellbeing does not happen in isolation. In fact very much the opposite.

Providing solutions to complex social issues such as long-term unemployment takes active participation from all parts of a community. The government recognises this and has begun the momentum of ensuring stronger links are forged between government agencies and local communities.

Looking ahead we see this as very much a whole-of-government approach. Agencies must work equally in concert with one another as well as with the community.

For the Ministry, the operation of Heartland Services expressly delivers on this need for connectedness. The original twelve centres have proved very successful in co-ordinating access to a cross section of government services in rural areas.

The centres have effectively re-established an important link between rural New Zealand and government. So much so, that we’re funding the establishment of a further nine centres.

This initiative is an exemplar for cross-sector co-operation and is very tangible evidence that a collaborative government approach provides the best answers to social exclusion.


Partnerships with communities

Work and Income regional commissioners provide further fuel to a more community-focused collaborative approach. All around the country commissioners are building relationships across the board at the local level. Departmental activities reflect and link into local economic and employment plans.

In these ways the Ministry’s active involvement reassures community leaders that Work and Income is there to provide the support needed to build healthy local economies. This is vital for the country's long term economic viability and its ability to provide sustainable employment.

And certainly there are issues to be dealt with.

A strong and growing economy generally has now brought new challenges to the employment sector. The resulting tightening labour market is seeing some regions struggle with skill shortages, with a lack of skilled staff cited by some firms as constraining their growth.

One region grappling with such shortages is Nelson-Tasman-Marlborough. The region has an average annual growth rate of over 4 percent and an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent. The competition for good workers is intense with particular shortages being felt in agriculture, horticulture, viticulture, forestry and construction.

Nelson recently hosted the first in a nationwide series of forums on how to address regional skill shortages. The format of the forum brings together employers, unions, training providers and government departments to identify the steps that need to be taken to ease labour shortages and promote growth.

The regional forums offer a launch pad for an ongoing process where government and communities work together to develop the best solutions to meet the regions’ needs.

The Northland region too has grown – 3 percent over the 2002 calendar year. This region’s employment rate though is 8.23 percent.

What is particularly significant for this region, is that it is nearing a watershed. There will be significant employment opportunities generated by the legendary ‘wall of wood’ - the massive timber plantations - that will soon come on stream.

The challenge for the Ministry in circumstances such as this is to work alongside other government agencies, mayors, and community and business leaders to ensure that the region is prepared.

In Northland's case the collaborative project Work and Income is undertaking with Ngati Hine Forestry, Northland Polytechnic and North Farm Labour is showing great results in producing people who are not only work ready but are an attractive employment proposition.

In many ways, this collaboration offers a potential blueprint for similar regional initiatives targeting sustainable employment. These developing employment opportunities offer a real boost to Northland as the region’s young people will have the chance to stay in their own communities and take up skilled jobs.

Like other currently lower socio-economic areas Northland’s social problems are as complex as they are persistent. There are no quick fixes and solutions require an extensive multi-agency focus.

The substandard level of housing in Northland – and in East Coast and Eastern Bay of Plenty – is one such problem being approached on a co-ordinated basis. The Ministry’s expertise in cross-sector co-ordination and leadership is being put to good use in the development of solutions.

I have little doubt that this expertise will be further exercised in future. Certainly you have the regional infrastructure and ICT capacity to extend your leadership role.

The Ministry's strengths and abilities are also being recognised at the strategic level in a number of mayoral taskforces. Work and Income is involved with over 100 joint initiatives that are designed to respond specifically to community needs.

More broadly, closer working relationships with local authorities is also delivering on the government's desire for its agencies to take a more active role in the life of New Zealand communities.

The Ministry's memorandum of understanding and subsequent joint work plan with the Christchurch City Council offers the potential to increase effectiveness of each organisation in delivering on social aims and objectives.

Collaboration generally is being more widely recognised in local government circles as a strength rather than a threat.

In the Eastern Bay of Plenty, the Opotiki, Whakatane and Kawerau district councils have joined forces to develop a social development strategy. This they are doing on a district basis to address the individual needs of each community.

All councils, though, are contributing to each other’s plans to ensure each adopts best practice ideas and so that an overall regional strategy can be pulled together from the individual - and compatible - components.

This amalgamation of councils has recognised the opportunities now available to them under the new local government legislation.

The new legislation encourages local authorities to broaden their contribution to their communities. It requires them to actively seek what their communities want from them, and to take a leadership and coordination role in achieving the desired outcomes.

It also requires of councils a greater accountability to their communities. The consultation councils are required to undertake must be documented in what's known as a Long-Term Community Plan.

Because of the synergies with their social development strategy, the Eastern Bay of Plenty amalgamation is including their strategy within their Community Plans. Both documents require councils to identify their social goals, desired outcomes and ways of achieving their objectives, including how they will work with other community groups, iwi and government.

These three councils have fully understood the value of extending their partnership to include Te Puni Kokiri and the Ministry. They recognise that in doing so they are ensuring their plans for each community will be as effective as possible.

Partnerships with community groups

Partnerships with local authorities are key to the achievement of many of government’s social goals. Partnerships with non-government interests also play a vital role both now and in the future.

These interests range from iwi and Mäori organisations, volunteer and community groups, to social entrepreneurs.

Often these organisations are able to support families and individuals in ways the government can’t. Our ongoing challenge here is to provide an environment where these contributors can function effectively.

One example of the often innovative solutions these organisation provide is the operation of a community internship scheme funded by the Department of Internal Affairs. Under the programme a skilled individual is ‘loaned’ on secondment to organisations that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford their services. In the case of the Mangakino Community Agency the ‘loan’ of a volunteer coordinator saved an at risk pilot programme targeting improved quality of life for children and families.

Such programmes build the capacity of communities to be self-supporting, something the government is very keen to encourage.

Partnerships with industries

Encouraging the capacity of businesses to employ people is another of government’s aims, especially in regions experiencing lower levels of employment. We see partnership, again, as the key to achieving the desired outcomes. And there are examples spread across widely different industries that provide the confidence that such partnerships work.

Work and Income has partnered with Sealord Nelson to serve the company’s employment needs especially during the Hoki season. The pairing sees Sealord recruiting personnel from the Nelson Work and Income office and the use of an electronic recruitment link between the organisations.

Also in Nelson, Work and Income has been involved with nationwide retailer Farmers in providing pre-employment training for potential Farmers retail staff. This has included group interview training, customer service and CV development.

In the North Island, multinational IT company EDS has accessed an Investment New Zealand grant to expand its state-of-the-art client contact centre operations in Auckland and expand its applications development operations in both Auckland and Wellington.

This deal offers significant benefits to New Zealand not only in terms of increased job numbers but also in terms of the increase in skill levels of New Zealanders in the vitally important knowledge industry.

EDS’s plans include enhancing New Zealand's capacity to take on more international projects, and therefore increase foreign exchange earnings. EDS has also undertaken to help local software companies enter global markets.

Work and Income will be working closely with the company to identify mutually beneficial staffing solutions. These are just a few examples that demonstrate the genuine benefits that can be generated through industry and government adopting a partnership approach. It’s an area that has great potential to meet sustainable employment aspirations and therefore significantly contribute to New Zealand's social development goals.

Driving home the future social development approach

Last month saw a change that laid positive foundations in the Ministry's pursuit of the sustainable development approach; a change that sees the Ministry providing more proactive forms of assistance to clients.

The legislation to abolish the work test for people on the DPB and the Widows Benefit took effect. With this legislation came the introduction of a single abatement rate, increasing the amount of part-time earnings a DPB recipient can keep.

More importantly, introduced hand-in-hand with these changes is the delivery of greater one-on-one support offered by case managers to DPB recipients to plan and prepare for their re-entry to the workplace.

These developments provide a tangible working example of what we mean by a 'social development approach' to welfare; where we tackle the underlying causes of people's problems rather than throw money at the symptoms.

The procedures now in place are clear evidence of this new approach. It shows we are focused on the long term. It shows that we are working in partnership with New Zealanders to help them find their potential as productive people in society. It shows that we can be more helpful across a wider range of areas in peoples' lives.

The change is momentous. That it's created challenges goes without saying. It places greater demands on the frontline - and those supporting them.

You have, though, through planning and effort, risen admirably to meet those challenges; to ensure these changes are implemented successfully. It’s taken a significant review of Work and Income operations. It 's involved the development of people both at case management level and at the contact centre level. It's involved thinking about how technology can be used to reduce the workloads of case managers.

Conclusion

Obviously, we're still only in early days and I believe the full significance of what we are building is yet to be fully realised. However, I'm very enthusiastic about the potential of the Ministry’s work to deliver on our vision and set in place the path we follow to achieve our social development goals.

I applaud the fantastic effort you've invested to get us to this point.

I’m sure in listening to the conference speakers over the next two days that you, like me, will come to the conclusion that New Zealand’s welfare system is in good heart if we can continue to innovate and apply new thinking as demonstrated in the cases presented.

It’s a hard road to building a truly inclusive society.

But the foundations are laid: we have the right structure in place, we’ve access to better information, and we’ve identified our journey partners. The direction's set: the goals are clear. And we’re already several stages along the journey.

So, yes, it’s hard. But we’re on track.

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