'Let's do what?' Jenée Tibshraeny explores the extent to which the goals the Government's set itself will define how successful it is

By Jenée Tibshraeny

Government ministers are returning to work knowing full well that 2019 needs to be a year of action.

They campaigned on having the energy and vision to pull off some big ideas.

They were quick off the bat to implement their first-year fees free tertiary education and new oil and gas exploration ban policies.

But ministers have spent a lot of time up until now forming working groups and gathering information; tasks it’s become clear they should’ve done more of in the nine years they were in opposition.

With the 2020 election in sight, there’s much to be done to ensure “Let’s do this” doesn’t turn into “Let’s do what?”

The Government is going to have to make some bold calls on tax reform, industrial relations reform, population policy, New Zealand’s relationship with China and the US, and the place of dairy in the low-carbon economy we’re aspiring for.

The thing I’m interested in, and would like to flesh out in this column, is how politicking distorts how we measure this progress.

Housing and Urban Development Minister Phil Twyford is the first minister to really take the hit for failing to get enough runs on the scoreboard, with the number of KiwiBuild houses completed falling way below target.

Twyford set himself up for the flak he’s receiving because he did the honourable, verging on naïve, thing of putting numbers to his targets.

We can talk about the construction sector supply chain, Resource Management Act and Twyford’s approach to incentivising developers to build cheaper houses until the cows come home.

But the reality is, he’d be feeling more secure in his job if he’d set himself vague goals that meant the news headlines weren’t dominated by tallies of KiwiBuild houses completed.

I wouldn’t be a real journalist if I wasn’t supportive of transparency, so here it is Mr Twyford – good on ya for making yourself accountable to the public.

The merits/flaws of KiwiBuild aside, I think we can all agree it’s an ambitious policy that spans this electoral cycle.

The same goes for many of the Government’s other endeavours, like its wellbeing focus, regulation of emissions, and the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF).

The thing is, KiwiBuild risks being canned before it has a chance to develop because of the scrutiny Twyford’s transparent goals is opening the scheme up to.

The PGF on the other hand – a scheme that’s costing taxpayers much more – is safe, as is Shane Jones’ “Champion of the Regions” title.  

Why? Other than the fact no one’s going to refuse free money, measuring the scheme’s success is near impossible.

The milestones, timeframes, and payment/loan schedules of different projects funded by the PGF are the result of negotiations between the Provincial Development Unit and the recipients.

Progress reporting is also agreed as a part of these negotiations; the frequency of this reporting usually being quarterly, depending on the scale of the project.

Copies of these contracts can be requested under the Official Information Act, but these are likely to be ridden with redactions due to commercial sensitivity.

With hundreds of projects set to receive funding, it’s near impossible for the public (and if I’m being cynical, the 94 staff who work in the Unit), to keep tabs on whether the recipients are meeting milestones and achieving what they set out to achieve.

We can take some comfort (from a transparency perspective) in the fact the largest amounts of funding pledged to date have been to publicly accountable government-related organisations, not Jones’ “nephs” in Northland.

But still, the reality is that Jones is going to cruise through to the next election much more smoothly than Twyford, regardless of the merits of their flagship policies.

The pinch is, the easier it is for a minister like Jones to avoid scrutiny of what they haven’t done, the more difficult it’ll be for them to prove what they have, come election time.

Given a number of the Government’s policies lack numerical targets, 2019 truly needs to be the year of not only getting stuff done, but putting the spotlight on what is being done.  

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

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13 Comments

Good article.
You could have a look at time-lines. Adrian Orr (if I remember correctly) has referred to the need for longer ones. Hip-pocket voting and election cycles are impossibly short framing for paradigm-changes (well-being, sustainability, zero-carbon).
Someone should also question whether money is an adequate measure - given that it represents a combined avoidance of 'costs', some of which can physically bite society in the posterior.

4 years term then? At least it saves us the cost one election every12 years!

And let's remember. With 12 odd weeks to go, Andrew Little was a goner. Is it any wonder that some of the groundwork was lacking? Policies had to be changed, and quickly. And let's also remember that with minus 4 weeks to go, Winston still hadn't decided which way to go. So all in all, I'm not surprised that it all got a bit rushed on the policy front. Twyford may be the fall-guy in all of this, and labour too on the social housing front, but someone and something had to change. If it takes more time than hoped, so what? (NB: I am a right-leaning voter if push come to shove)

That would be a valid excuse, except Kiwibuild has been around since 2012. Repeatedly told it couldn't be done, wasn't possible, but repeatedly pushed back and said it was. And then after the election, oh look, the costings are out of date guys, don't think we're going to be able to do that, sorry.

Very few policies changed, just the front-person for them. Kiwibuild, CGT, etc. They were all rejected by the electorate before. Arguably they were again this time too.

Kiwibuild was one option to a problem that has festered for decades. If it was 'obvious it wouldn't work' in 2012, why wasn't something else done by the incumbent Government back then? And the ones before that?
Because it would upset a vocal minority of the electorate.
When I arrive in NZ I never saw people sleeping in the doorways of shops etc. Now? It's an everyday occurrence, and unless we do something, that problem is not only is that going to get worse, but differently worse...
Adequate social housing is the responsibility of any civilised, developed nation. Are we saying that we aren't? Because we are failing on that score, and whether Kwiwbuild rises or falls, something has to be done.

If it was so important, they should have got the numbers right.

You can't have this both ways. What National did or did not do is no excuse for Labour playing it fast and loose with Kiwibuild during the campaign.

History, Never repeats. I tell myself before i go to sleep.
Alas it surely does. Same story, different actors ...

The Government faces some serious challenges about taxes. The compromise with respect to their socio-economic goals and the policy costs. And of course they are working through the TWG's report,and facing some media interest on "bracket creep", which on the face of it their response tends to contradict their stated goals. Taking tax from the economy can stifle activity and growth, while their policies need to be funded. They are walking a fine line here and missteps could easily hand the oppostion the next election. Money in the hand for the public is a big point especially at a time when the impacts of ever increasing prices of some essentials has never been more obvious.

Jenée I think your conclusion that Mr. Twyford is under attack because he was transparent is very misleading. He is under attack because when he put out those figures before election, many people pointed out that they are very unlikely to get these goals. He came out backing those numbers. If he was more realistic with his goals (especially the short term ones!) he would have been under a lot less pressure. But real numbers were unlikely to win him any votes. So he was either deceitful (knowingly exaggerating numbers) or incompetent (not knowing realities of work). Both very good reasons to receive criticism for now.
Transparency is good, but transparency is not the same as lying. Trump promised to build a "beautiful wall" and that Mexico will pay for it. It was all very transparent. But i seriously doubt that you would come to his defense that he is now under attack for his inability to deliver because he was transparent when he was promising and promising to people.

I am more than a little bit amused at the very modest first year goal for kiwibuild. The first year goal was 1,000 homes. That out of 100,000 homes as a ten year target. The first year goal was to build 1% of the ten year total. At present they are on track to build around 1/3 of that 1% in the first year. At some point they are going to have to get to >10k homes/year to achieve anything close to the stated targets.

The kiwibuild build targets are aspirational at best. Lauding a politician for setting a goal that is just 10% of the eventual goal, and not being taken to task for missing that modest goal suggests that one doesn't care much that the electioneering promises are unrelated to results. Or maybe, one should instead applaud governments that promise nothing, which appears to be the take-away here. I appreciate governments that tackle the difficult tasks, even if they may be unpopular to some segments of the voting public. I'd strongly favor a party that puts forward a comprehensive CGT that taxes the primary home. I'd also be in strong favor of an environmental party that focuses on only the environmental issues. Neither party exists in NZ at present.

But the reality is, he’d be feeling more secure in his job if he’d set himself vague goals that meant the news headlines weren’t dominated by tallies of KiwiBuild houses completed.

Reality says there is more to politics than journalism and headlines. NZFirst has lost large chunks of its electoral support and Labour hasn't. Labour appears to be trying to do worthwhile things and making the effort is seen as important. Obviously they could try harder (perhaps implement their election promises), but they get credit for the effort. NZFirst is doing vague BS and losing supporters.

BTW, another item for discussion is the visionary billion trees program. In the fine print it turns out that about half of the billion trees planting is for trees that are already expected to be planted. The reality is that it should be properly be called the half billion trees program, but that doesn't make nearly as good of a slogan.

For 2018, the government has directly funded a bit less than 0.8% of the eventual goal. The mix of planted tree types is that about 1/8 of the planted trees are expected to be native trees, the rest will be exotic trees.

The private sector had a billion tree program in '95. Trees now have to compete a lot harder for land now manuka and ag is in full swing.

'Twyford set himself up for the flak he’s receiving because....... putting numbers to his targets.'

His number was the target, and that is the real problem because numbers by themselves are not a target but a measure (one measure of many that will make up the target) you use to judge whether you are on 'target' to meet the target.

There should be a dozen or more measures to meet the target definition.

The target definitions would include things like:
1. The true definition of what the word 'affordable' means.
2. Quality issues, eg warm, dry, healthy etc.
3. Location requirements
4. Number time frames, starting with land purchasing, infrastructure, consenting time frames, building time frames.
5.etc.

And they have to be the right definitions, not just definitions for words sake. I read most of these Govt. policy statements and they are all waffle, not a truly measurable target amongst them, except for a future number ie 100,000 houses. When they use the word 'wellbeing' you know it is really doomed.

Twyfords biggest mistake as a polly was he gave a number in such short a time frame that he would be still be around to be held accountable. Yes honourable but naive.

The process of how we get to build one (let alone 100,000) warm, dry, healthy affordable houses is more important than the mythical end number, for in solving the process to build the first warm, dry, healthy affordable house you automatically create the conditions to build them in volume.

It was apparent from day one from the lack of a proper target that Kiwibuild was going to fail. You don't have to wait months for the lack of physical houses to determine the success or not.

The failure was written into their very words.