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Maharey : Connecting policy, research, practice

Steve Maharey Speech: Connecting policy, research and practice


Kia ora ladies and gentlemen.

It's my privilege to welcome you here today to what is a watershed in, to date, an inconspicuous social revolution. A strong word, revolution. But accurate in the sense that what we're focusing on over the next two days is a complete turnaround in the approach to how we undertake policy development in this country.

And over the next few days you will hear from an impressive array of experts, both local and international, who will challenge us to work together towards improving both policy and practice in social policy

Here today, we are consolidating an approach that will place evidence at the heart of policy and practice development.

This conference aims to build a broad consensus of both the need, and the opportunity, for evidence-based policy and practice.

A context of challenge

As a country, we are set to face many challenges in the coming years as changes continue to occur, particularly in the areas of families and the roles of both women and men.

Our population is ageing and also changing. There is a steady increase in the Maori population. Currently one in seven New Zealanders is Maori, but this is projected to increase to one in five by 2051. Maori are a younger population than other groups.

The quality of our environment has direct impacts on health and wellbeing. We need to protect our energy sources, water and air to ensure the environment is sustainable for future generations. New Zealand also needs to respond to global environmental issues such as the greenhouse effect.

Moreover globalization will bring new challenges and opportunities as we increase our connectedness to the rest of the world and experience increasing migration.

The ageing population phenomena here will be further exacerbated by the growing shortage of working age people in the UK and Europe. With the longstanding tradition of the kiwi big 'OE', young New Zealanders will be prime pickings for the looming Northern Hemisphere labour shortage. This may seem incongruous given the EUs recent moves but in the longer term, I fully expect them to try and attract more of our brightest and best.

New Zealand's population is becoming more culturally diverse with increased immigration from a wide range of countries. In 1991, 16% of the population was born overseas, and by 2001 this had increased to 20% of the population. We will need to ensure that cultural differences are recognised so that individuals and communities can participate fully in society.

We will be seeing increasing changes in the world of work in the future, with increasing diversity in work patterns.

And lastly we can only imagine the changes that new technology will have on our society in the coming years.

A new approach to policy and practice

As a nation, and especially as a government, we need to respond to these challenges.

This government's vision for the country is a prosperous, inclusive and environmentally sustainable society. A society characterised by opportunity for all. A society where, no matter your gender, your ethnicity, your country of origin, or even where you live, you can make your own way in life.

In the area of social policy, our approach is to build a better society through social development.

Social development involves co-ordinated social change to promote the wellbeing of the whole of a society - not just some of its individuals.

Social development is an approach that necessitates working in partnership with people, their families and communities, to help break the cycles of dependence and build the bridge to participation - socially and economically.

The barriers to participation are many. To address them, social development requires new and strengthened partnerships between central and local government and the community. And a clear focus is needed to drive all efforts.

In short, social development involves tackling the underlying causes of people's problems rather than throwing money at the symptoms. It shifts the bookkeeping view of social welfare as an item of consumption for a society to that of an investment

Building an inclusive New Zealand requires a commitment to world-class social policies in areas such as health, housing, education, social assistance, families and development policies for Maori and Pacific communities.

Such a society must be fueled by economic growth. And it's quite clear that in this increasingly globalised world that growth can be best fostered by the development of a knowledge economy. Equally clear, we need social policies that support the effort to achieve that goal.

Further, these policies must respect the environment. Plundering our resources for the benefit of the current generation will only compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Any development of this country, then, must be sustainable.

These are the broad policy goals we brought to office.

The role of government, however, is not purely about overall goals. It is also about the detail and this administration is committed to improving the practical design and delivery of government services.

A what works approach

High ideals are all very well. But in themselves, ideals change little. We understand that to build our vision for New Zealand the steps in construction must be practical.

Social policy, translated into effective practice, is the vehicle for action. This might be in improving the practice of teaching in Maori communities. It might be in more modern laws about the rights and responsibilities of parents, or simply in improving policies providing access to primary healthcare for disadvantaged New Zealanders

We want our social policy - and policy overall - to make real and tangible difference in the lives of New Zealanders.

That we have a clear understanding of policies and initiatives that effectively address the social issues facing this country is critical. That we have the information to guide our steps, vital.

In entering government, however, we discovered there was little evidence to help us take a practical approach to achieve our vision.

For example, while there was a body of social statistics we had no overall assessment of New Zealand social conditions and how they were changing over time. This particular aspect has now been remedied with the ongoing production of The Social Report, which catalogues the key social statistics on the wellbeing of New Zealanders.

This, though, was just one of many examples where the social policy knowledge base proved inadequate or under used.

To quote Aldous Huxley: "facts do not cease to exist just because they are ignored".

And to ignore the facts - which is effectively what we have been doing - is a sure prescription for, at best, ineffectiveness; at worst, failure. This is especially so for decision making around policy and practice development.

Evidence-based policy and practice, then, offers us a stone on which we can sharpen the instruments of effective government.

We want to ensure policy decisions and delivery to be based on firm evidence about 'what works'.

Where there is only limited evidence available, we want to put in place strategies to collect and use evidence in the future. This will often require experimentation and evaluation to gain evidence. A reliance on evidence should not quash useful innovation.

Moreover, in an environment where there is only limited evidence, we want policy advisors and practitoners who can piece together available and related evidence. This is a bit like putting a jigsaw together without all the pieces.

What evidence-based policy and practice requires

Evidenced-informed policy and practice is hardly a new concept. Though its current resurgence has its roots in the last decade of the 20th century - largely thanks to the Blair government in Britain - its origins reach back considerably further.

An oft-quoted statement in the evidence-based debate by John Maynard Keynes indicates that this is an issue much considered in times past. He said: "There is nothing a politician likes so little as to be well informed. It makes decision making so complex and difficult."

However, in today's climate of increased calls for transparency and accountability, some means other than accepted or anecdotal knowledge is demanded as the basis for decision making.

And this is very much a flax roots demand - from New Zealanders.

People don't trust words. They want evidence of 'what works'.

For a government, this is a considerable challenge.

For one thing, the 'what works' approach casts aside ideology - something quite fundamentally at odds within the traditional realm of politics.

It requires an open mind to new ideas and new methodologies - all of which means exposure to high risk.

It is a brave government that chooses this path. It is a path, however, that the government of which I'm a part has committed to taking.

A shared task

This is not a task for government alone.

Yes, government has a significant role. It must set the direction, then hold its agencies to account. For progress to be made the direction must be clear and set out in detail.

However, many others have a role. Community based researchers, academics, the public sector are all important.

What we know is that the knowledge base surrounding social policy is inadequate and, that what little we do have, is often poorly used. The need, therefore, is to improve both the quantum and the quality of the social policy knowledge base, and improve the capacity of the social sector to use that knowledge.

Starting at the end

Ultimately, we need to identify where we want to go. In other words, we need to determine our priorities for building the knowledge base.

Historically, social research by government agencies has been disparate. In the past, the various agencies have not always been able to agree on, or effectively articulate, their knowledge needs.

Productive working relationships across all agencies are required to ensure all ships in the fleet are sailing the same course.

Partnerships between policy makers and researchers

As the provider of knowledge needed to produce genuinely effective policy and practice, the research sector is, effectively, the engine room.

The disparate articulation of knowledge needs has lessened the capability of the social research sector to produce policy-relevant information, which can then be translated into effective service delivery.

Tertiary institutions will play a key role if we are to rebuild this capability.

This in turn will require the building of a strong partnership between academic community and policy makers. A challenge not to be taken lightly.

Policy makers often view researchers as closely focused on the academic aspects of research - pursuing intellectual inquiry often at the expense of producing pragmatic information useful for policy formation.

Researchers have argued that policy makers don't offer the necessary guidance for them to formulate policy-relevant research; that they don't make use of good use of existing work and are often too focused on the short term.

The need therefore, is to build an environment where there is greater collaboration between researchers and practitioners.

We need to encourage researchers to produce information that can be readily understood by the person on the street. And we need to upskill policy makers so they are better able to identify useful information amongst the volume of academic material they encounter.

Only then will we see the spin-off of more relevant research, which by its very nature, will be of more use in practice.

Evidence comes in many forms

The evidence used to inform policy and practice takes many forms, of which research is but one part.

There is a strong need to balance the pure academic research with other forms of knowledge, especially from those communities who are effected by policy

The evidence arsenal should, therefore, incorporate a wide span of information sources. Consultation with stakeholders and end users, evaluation of past policies, desk research of existing information, the knowledge of experts and frontline staff, all have considerable value in informing policy.

Making better use of information

In the final analysis, the end goal of evidence-based policy and practice is, surely, to ensure service delivery is in line with best practice.

Work to improve the relevance of evidence needs to go hand-in hand with encouraging greater uptake of best practice findings at the frontline. To some degree this will happen naturally as the work to improve relevance takes effect. However, there is still a need to examine the factors that inhibit the use and application of evidence in work practice.

Encouragement at the frontline will involve raising the awareness and understanding of research findings. Education is key to this.

And managers at the frontline need to identify and any perceived barriers to the use of research. Often access is a problem - ways round this need to be sought.

The UK example

Some turnaround can be seen in action in the United Kingdom.

As mentioned earlier, the resurgence in interest in evidence-based policy and practice is largely thanks to the Blair government. The landslide victory of New Labour in 1997 and the subsequent return of the party in 2001 gave the Blair government the mandate for its platform of reform.

A centrepiece of its plan for change was its Modernising government white paper, which acknowledged the need to focus in the social domain on the pragmatic - 'what works' - rather than the political. It embedded evidence-based policy and practice as the foundation of policymaking.

The need to fuel change recognised, a boost in social research funding was an early commitment.

Eight research centres in specialist fields have been established. These 'nodes' are known collectively as the EvidenceNetwork. Each is committed to bringing research closer to policy and practice. Their activities span the whole of the evidence-based policy and practice continuum - from the production of the evidence to its application in practice.

Later today you'll hear from Dr Sandra Nutley who heads the Research Unit for Research Utilisation at St Andrews University in Scotland, one of the nodes.

The Blair government's commitment to evidence-based policy and practice is beginning to reap results.

Robust scientific research into US and UK early intervention programmes paved the way for the investment of hundreds of millions of pounds in the Sure Start programme. The research identified the considerable positive effects of early childhood support. These findings provided a solid platform for the development and implementation of strategies tackling the effects of entrenched disadvantage.

The West Yorkshire police have piloted, in one division, a graded response model to domestic violence that has reduced repeat victimisation. The three-stage intervention model is directed at both perpetrators and victims, incorporating an inter-agency approach. The results of this research are helping to shape criminal justice policy on repeat victimisation.

The need to balance the empirical with information from individuals effected by policy has also found currency. The UK's Children's National Service Framework and the Children and Young People's Unit are examples. These organisations work to ensure that children and young people whose lives are affected by health service delivery have input in social and health decision making.

The New Zealand situation

In August 2000, the Improving the Knowledge Base Project, a joint Social Development and Research Science and Technology initiative, began the review of the knowledge base for social policy in this country. The review was also done in tandem with a 'stakeholder reference group' led by Professor Sally Casswell.

The review identified much of what I've already raised: · that there had been poor communication between policy officials and research providers about what information was needed - and this limited the shared understanding of priorities. · that there were areas where the knowledge base was inadequate · that there was limited uptake of evidence.

To address these the Improving the Knowledge Base review team recommended a range of practical policies to foster evidence-based policy and practice in New Zealand.

Defining priorities for knowledge creation

Key to building greater alignment of social research across all state agencies has been the identification of government's strategic priorities for social policy development.

The government has set seven priority knowledge theme areas and five enduring types of knowledge questions indicating the types of research to be considered. These are to be covered in detail during this conference.

These theme areas clarify the information needs for the organisations setting policy. They also provide a clear signal to social researchers as to what the government regards as the priorities for social policy development.

Improving communication across the sector

This conference is one of the initiatives designed to help build a shared understanding of where the government wants to go and foster the production of high-quality, policy-relevant social research.

>From my perspective, the high calibre of the speakers you will hear and the topics covered over the next two days will certainly spark renewed enthusiasm for the task ahead.

To further build broad access to information about social research, a social policy research web site has been established. The site will be launched later today and it will become a nexus for social policy research and evaluation information.

Getting more researchers into the policy world

Building linkages between social policy officials and the social policy research sector is another key strategy ensuring we remain true to our course.

The government has created a pool of funds to foster links between social policy agents and the New Zealand and international academic community. The pool supports initiatives such as scholarships and secondments and is focused on linkages around cross-portfolio research issues.

Improving public sector communication and coordination

The establishment of the Social Policy Evaluation Research Committee, or SPEaR as it is known, is helping to ensure the public sector flotilla is sailing in the same direction.

SPEaR is the officials coordinating group overseeing the government's social policy research and evaluation purchase.

The committee's role is to develop the research and evaluation agendas to meet the identified knowledge gaps. They are to ensure that the research and evaluation purchased by government is of appropriate quality and relevance. Downstream, the committee is also responsible for evaluating the success of initiatives.

Over the last 12 months the government has decided to push the development of the evidence-based agenda further.

The next phase

We are announcing today an $8.2m package of initiatives.

A key element of this project is to build research capability in the social sciences within academic institutions. This will network New Zealand's leading social scientists in the tertiary sector, and enable them to share their expertise with policy makers. This $5.2m project will link leading researchers in tertiary sector to build up critical mass in priority areas in the social sciences aligned with the government's goals. The project complements the seven Centres of Research Excellence which have already been established and are in the main focused on economic and environmental-based issues. New knowedge generated will be used to enhance the government's social, economic and environnmental goals.

This project will encourage networking and collaboration across the country's foremost research teams and with relevant government departments. It will identify and address key gaps in social science research in New Zealand. We also expect that it will lead to a pool of more highly skilled social science graduates able to take up positions in the public service, community organisations and academia.

Several other specific research initiatives are also being funded in the Budget to give the government better information on which to base policy decisions: · a new national clearinghouse for information on family violence will be established in line with the recommendations of Te Rito, the New Zealand Family Violence Startegy which both governnment and non-government agencies will be able to access ($2.1m over four years); · additional questions will be added to Statistics New Zealand's Household Labour Force Survey to give us a better picture of the extent to which New Zealanders are particpating in education and training ($0.5m over four years); and · a research project will be undertaken to gain a better understanding of the reasons behind increasing numbers of people gaining the sickness and invalids benefits to support the government's Future Directions welfare reform programme ($0.400 over 2003/04 and 2004/05).

Tomorrow I will also be introducing legislation to establish the new Families Commission. This has an important connection to this conference as an important function of the new commission will be to improve our knowledge about New Zealand families, and to build an evidence-base for policy that will improve the lives of New Zealand children.

The information gathered in all these initiatives will plug the knowledge gaps in key government social development reform programmes now underway and demonstrate this government's commitment to evidence-based policy development.


To achieve better connections between policy, research and practice will require significant change by us all.

Researchers will need to find ways of making their research relevant to social policy needs and will need to constantly check that the work they produce is widely accessible. Both in content and in form. It must be available to those working in the community and it must be in form that they can both understand and use.

Policy makers and advisors will need to ensure that as a matter of course they use evidence to inform their work and ensure that they communicate clearly the information needs they have.

Those working in the community need to fully appreciate the value of evidence and find ways to ensure they are constantly linking in to new evidence as it is available.

Certainly this conference will help consolidation that has begun in recent years. And given the quality and sheer number of participants, I am sure we will be following up with others.

I encourage you to make the best of the opportunities presented over these two days to become better informed about the benefits of evidence-based policy and practice. I further encourage you to consider the role you have to play in seeing it becoming a reality in the social sector in New Zealand.

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