Whose values should apply? Tom Berthold

Social Assessment and Central Government
Judith Davey (ed)
Institute of Policy Studies, $22.00
ISBN 0908935 005

Governments, especially in democracies, have to carry out some kind of social assessment if they are to adapt their policies to changing circumstances and keep them tolerable to the governed. If they fail, they exceed the tolerance that they have enjoyed and are ousted in an election or some other process. Some kind of social assessment, then, has been around for about as long as governments have.

“Social assessment” is, however, now a term of art; it has acquired special meanings, wider in some ways (and narrower in others) than the social assessment that governments must practise to survive. This short book brings together four essays by members of the Association for Social Assessment. They tend to view social assessment as “the process in which proposed projects, programmes and policies are examined for their possible effects on individuals, groups and communities”.

Judith Davey, who provided the introduction and conclusion as well as the first paper, traces the origins of social assessment to the social impact assessments done for the major industrial projects of the 1960s such as the Glenbrook steel mill and the Bluff aluminium smelter and for the major projects that followed in the 1970s and later. Social assessment evolved as a broader version of social impact assessment, avoiding the negative implication of “impact” and of a reactive, project-based approach. Davey traverses that evolution through to the present time, citing on the way comments from such as the 1976 Task Force on Economic and Social Planning in its report New Zealand at the Turning Point and the 1988 Report of the Royal Commission on Social Policy. From the latter:

There seems to be a widespread feeling that it should be possible to achieve agreement on a set of basic objectives for social policy in New Zealand, which can be universally supported and by which all social policies and programmes can be guided. (p842)

These universally supported basic objectives, it suggested, would inform and enable the monitoring and assessment of social policy as well as guiding its making. The Royal Commission favoured use of the Audit Office as an independent assessment and monitoring organisation. Davey disagrees, because the Audit Office cannot contribute to policy formulation and because it can take only a retrospective view, focusing on outcomes. She does however see evaluation and monitoring as implying “as high a degree of objectivity as can be achieved”, while noting that:

Monitoring and assessment of policy also takes place in a very diffuse way through lobbying of MPs and ministers; electorate contact; submissions to taskforces, select committees, etc; and the activities of interest groups and community networking. Much of the detailed assessment of recent policy changes … has come from agencies outside [the] government, especially voluntary organisations. Examples include the churches’ statement on social justice, the Methodist Mission’s foodbank survey and an analysis of child poverty by the Council for Christian Social Services.

David Haigh and Bruce Hucker appear not to share the “widespread feeling” that the royal commission described about the possibility of agreed basic objectives which can be universally supported and by which all social policies can be guided:

[S]ocial assessment … recognises that societies are made up of individuals, groups and communities, whose interests overlap but do not always coincide. Nor are groups and communities simply the sum of their parts. They develop sets of interests and identities … that often stand in tension with those of their individual components. … The particular groups that are included in a study may be selected and analysed on the basis of class, status, power, gender and ethnicity. This suggests one way in which differences in society can be acknowledged and the varieties of inequality taken into account … the questions raised in social assessment spring out of its recognition of pluralism and diversity.
—Who benefits?
—At whose expense?
—What interests are served?
Because society is diverse, so too the impacts of policies and projects are likely to be diverse. Their costs fall more heavily on some than on others. And some benefit at the expense of others as a result of this.

And:

Social assessment is not simply a technical exercise but a form of political activity … and has implications for the distribution of power … particularly when it unmasks the real beneficiaries of policies or projects, who pays for them and the actual interests that are served… It is political through and through… Social assessment is not ethically neutral but is based on a vision of social justice and respect for persons… (It) is not a neutral tool in the hands of a technician… The full political agenda is not always apparent. The outcomes of policy change are often clouded by such statements as “more choice”, “greater accountability” and “greater equity”. The hidden political agenda may be somewhat different.

And further:

Because departments are now required to focus only on their area, there appears to be no one with the responsibility to consider the big picture… In a plural society where different political, ethical and cultural views abound, the real alternatives need expression. .. Perhaps MMP will ensure a wider range of views, opinions and alternatives before policy is finally in place.

This kind of social assessment resembles social criticism and political activism more than it does the process said to have originated with the major projects of the 1960s and carried out by public servants in government departments.

James Barnes’ paper observes that the values that are relevant to Maori policy as it has evolved over the last 155 years are…

…those that are driven by indigenous aspirations for self-determination on the one hand (tino rangatiratanga) and the determination of a governing culture to offer, at best, self-management on the other (kawanatanga). The implication, therefore, is that for social assessment to be relevant and accurate in reflecting the impact of government policy on Maori, an analysis of both sets of values is required.

He says that in the current environment there is no clear mandate for any individual organisation successfully to monitor and evaluate responsiveness to Maori policy issues:

This has created a lot of uncertainty. In the case of Te Puni Kokiri (the Ministry of Maori Development), a kawanatanga agency, the organisation appears to be in a very difficult position. As part of the kawanatanga framework of governance, it does not have a mandate from either the Crown or iwi to promote indigenous Maori values. In executing its responsibility to monitor and evaluate the performance of mainstream government agencies it has no real authority to act and must rely on establishing a good working relationship with agencies they wish to monitor… Iwi have recognised for a long time that Te Puni Kokiri is not “their agency”. The dilemma for Te Puni Kokiri would appear to be one of how to operate without a sustainable mandate … an effective mandate forged between kawanatanga and rangatiratanga aspiration needs to be created based on agreed objectives, so that future structural changes to Maori policy are inclusive rather than exclusive of indigenous Maori values.

It would be unusual for a policy ministry such as Te Puni Kokiri to have “real authority to act”. Parliament and the cabinet have been sparing in assigning power to act to government departments. Power to act in relation to mainstream government agencies is mainly reserved to ministers, consistent with their responsibility to Parliament for those agencies. Better Maori policy in the future will surely — as Barnes suggests — depend on agreed objectives. These can only be developed politically. The question of whether Te Puni Kokiri should be assigned “real authority to act” will be easier to resolve once the agreed objectives exist.

Diane Buchan in her chapter presents a case for a stand-alone social assessment agency within the central government, independent from other ministries and departments. She outlines the history of the proposal since the early 1970s, describes the variety of substitute arrangements that have been devised and offers judgment on their efficacy and instances a number of policy reversals in recent years that would probably not have occurred if the consequences of policies had been properly assessed prior to implementation. Buchan would have the agency’s tasks include “establishing broad social objectives or goals” and “ensuring that mitigation measures have been put in place to manage or reduce any adverse effects” resulting from new policies and programmes. However, with these functions it would be a social policy ministry, not just a social assessment agency.

Davey’s concluding chapter appears to endorse Haigh and Hucker’s characterisation of social assessment. She writes:

The philosophical basis for the practice of social assessment in policymaking is set out by Bruce Hucker and David Haigh. Social assessment … cannot be a neutral tool. Social assessment is grounded in a concern for social justice and equity, respect for persons and providing a voice to those who otherwise would have none.

In summarising the papers of all the contributors she offers the observation: “Although the ministry of social policy proposal has been seriously considered at the highest level, there appears little prospect that it will be implemented in the near future.” However, she notes the view that…

…suggests that we do indeed have clear policy objectives in the form of government statements such as “Towards 2010”, “The Next Three Years” and budget documents. At the highest level these set out generic objectives such as economic growth and social cohesion. The latter incorporates much of the concern of social assessment — the well-being of families and communities as well as cultural sensitivity and partnership through the Treaty of Waitangi. These objectives are operationalised and “cascade” through sets of strategic result areas (SRA) and key result areas (KRA), which apply throughout the public sector. They are reflected in the performance contracts of agency [chief executives] and in purchase agreements. Participants in the seminar differed in their assessment of how well this system is operating.

Gary Hawke contributed a foreword to the book. He contends:

Some social assessment may be done by independent researchers … and they may try to persuade politicians that the community preferences that constrain policy decisions through the cabinet and Parliament should be changed because of their judgments about what social assessment reveals. At another extreme, social assessment may be part of the monitoring and evaluation built into a quite specific policy initiative as part of a professional process of policy development. In this case the objectives of the initiative which should guide the evaluation and monitoring are not those of the individual researcher but those of the cabinet. Or, in the language used by the authors, they are not “social justice” as interpreted by the individual researcher but “social justice” as the cabinet (working within our parliamentary processes) has decided is best promoted by collective and individual action … the question of whose preferences should drive assessment is a critical one. And for the policy process the answer is clearly ministers.

Hawke does not support the arguments for a ministry of social policy or a ministry of social assessment. While agreeing that monitoring and assessment have not had the secure place in policy development that their importance deserves, he suggests means of altering the incentives that ministers and officials face in order to correct this.

As has been seen, some formulations of “social assessment” would have it range very widely into the domains of social criticism and political activism. Nevertheless the criteria suggested in this book for choosing candidates for social assessment are narrow — “proposed projects, policies and programmes”. Existing projects, policies and programmes are excluded. Yet much of value could be learned from systematic comparisons between their actual outcomes and those that were predicted for them, both by their proponents and by their opponents — not least about the credibility of the predictors.

It appears also that only those projects, policies and programmes that are proposed by the government (or a local government) are candidates. If this is so, the past and present electoral policies of political parties and urgings of interest groups are excluded. Yet it is as these that many proposed projects, policies and programmes begin life and surely it would be helpful to the government (and the public) to see social assessments of the seeds of policies before they take root as government proposals.

Similarly valuable would be ex post assessments of policies such as those which malformed the economy from the 1970s onwards, led to the crises of the mid-1980s, and forced — as they were bound to — a rapid and painful process of adjustment, whatever precise form that took According to Haigh and Hucker, “a question for analysts is where to begin: at the restructuring or effects stage?” Not so; that is a question for polemicists. Analysts should start with the causes of the conditions that impelled choices between restructuring and its alternatives.

This book leaves the central issues up in the air. Do we accept the legitimacy of the democratic process or do we require a social assessment process to “correct” some of its decisions? If social assessment must be value-laden, whose values should apply — those of elected representatives, or those of officials or of others? Is social assessment a tool for ensuring that public decision-making is well grounded in information about how people are affected by decisions or is it a weapon for some who disagree with those decisions? “Social assessment” must be clear about these things for it to have any contribution to make either to public understanding or to public policy, for all that it aspires to social justice and empowering individuals, groups and communities.

Tom Berthold is senior adviser (contract) to the State Services Commission. The views expressed here are those of the reviewer and not the commission.

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