The Child, Youth and Family review: Reading between the lines

In these media savvy days political pronouncements are almost always focussed on managing media. During elections media management is particularly intense with resources invested in promoting vote winning messages whilst sullying the reputation of others.  Once in power, and with a respectable majority assured, governments turn to the business of pushing their real political agenda.  Media management between elections includes tactics such as timing political announcements to minimise critical reaction, wrapping politically sensitive policies in good news stories, and using slippery semantics to conceal or make palatable politically controversial policies.

Of course, few politicians will admit to this and, Cabinet leaks aside, it is almost impossible to prove. If, however, you believe (as this BBC documentary suggests) that politicians are close readers of Machiavelli then to understand the policy process, to work out what is really going on, we need to read between the lines.  In this post I try to read between the lines of the New Zealand Government’s announcement of the Child Youth and Family review.

Timing the announcement

On Wednesday 1st of April 2015, Anne Tolley (Minister for Social Development) announced that an “independent expert panel” would lead a “complete overhaul” of Child, Youth and Family (the government agency responsible for child protective services in New Zealand).  The report was broadly welcomed, with some reservations, by other political parties and media commentators.  However, for those of us who attended the Australasian Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect (ACCAN) on the 31st March, and heard Minster Tolley give an opening address to the conference without a mention of the review, the news was breathtaking.  Especially so when much of the conference was preoccupied with the work of the Ministry of Social Development and the reorganisation of Child, Youth and Family to meet the requirements of the Vulnerable Children’s Act, 2014.  But then, perhaps it’s understandable that Minister Tolley might want to avoid subjecting the CYF review proposals to the scrutiny of over 500 child protection professionals including experienced paediatricians, nurses, police officers, probation officers, social workers and researchers with deep expertise in child protection services. Making the announcement just before a public holiday would also help to calm any controversy.

The good news story

One of the points made by Minister Tolley during her speech at ACCAN was on her desire to learn from the work of Who Cares? Scotland about giving a voice to children and young people in state care.  Who Cares? Scotland is a non-governmental organisation who provide support and advocacy for children and young people in Scotland’s residential care system.  As a former Scottish social worker, and social work academic, I worked with colleagues from Who Cares? on countless occasions and witnessed their expertise in empowering young people in care.  Many of their leading activists are articulate graduates from the residential child care system. Could Aotearoa New Zealand learn anything from an organisation like Who Cares Scotland? Of course we could, but the lessons learned would need to be understood from the standpoint of our unique cultural, social and historical context, and our obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi.  Such lessons cannot be imposed by Government ministers or visiting “experts”.

The inclusion of Duncan Dunlop (the current Chief Executive of Who Cares? Scotland) on the “independent expert panel” leading a “complete overhaul” of Child Youth and Family is puzzling.  Mr Dunlop is not an expert in child protection services, nor would he pretend to be.  He must be wondering why, so soon after the announcement of the CYF review, the President of the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers felt compelled to issue a press release challenging the terms of reference of the review and Mr. Dunlop’s competence “to speak for Maori and Pacific young people living in New Zealand”. Had Mr. Dunlop done his homework, he might have been more reflective about his role on the panel.  I have no doubt that the Ministry will have provided him with a reading list of CYF facts and figures, and something on the cultural context of Aotearoa New Zealand. I doubt that the reading list includes the recent report on the New Zealand’s governments failings in relation to human rights (including UNCROC), or the critique of Government policy priorities by our Child Poverty Action Group,  or the recent text by Nicky Hager on the National Government’s campaigning style titledDirty Politics.  To put it simply, and to paraphrase Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, “Duncan, you’re not in Kansas anymore!”.

The truth is that, if the New Zealand government was so inclined, it could learn a lot from Scotland. Consider, for example, the work of the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) that requires mandatory registration for all social services workers including residential child care workers.  SSSC registration goes well beyond the police checks required by the Vulnerable Children’s Act and, significantly, includes requirements for post registration training and learning. Then there is the work ofCentre of Excellence for Looked After Children offering specialist Bachelors and Masters degree programmes in residential child care and a host of other services including a Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care. And let’s not forget the ground breaking work of the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services (IRISS) dedicated to providing the whole social services workforce with access to knowledge and research for service innovation and improvement.  Each one of these initiatives, and many others, is actively supported and funded by a Scottish Government committed to public services, social service innovation, and a set of national outcomes geared to promote the quality of life of the people of Scotland.

The New Zealand government has no intention of advocating a Scottish approach to child protective services. Their own plans have much more in keeping with thedirection of travel in England.  So why has the New Zealand government included Mr Dunlop on the panel?  Could it be that a good news story about improving outcomes for children in care might help government appear very child centred?  Would this not also distract media attention from the uglier, and more difficult to explain, business of outsourcing state services?  Might it be the case that government is willing to invest in an affordable and worthy project to support children and young people in state care if it enables them to manage the media presentation of the review of Child, Youth and Family?

Slippery semantics

The use of key words, phrases and ideas to describe and promote a policy position is increasingly important.  Terms like hard-working families, vulnerable children, and childcentric practice convey ideas and ways of thinking about a policy problem or issue.  With persistent use, over a period of time, they come to appear as natural, uncontroversial and common sense ways of representing phenomena. Yet these words and phrases are open to multiple interpretations.  Empowerment, for example, is a word that may seem to entail a shift of power from the powerful to the powerless.  For Paula Bennet (former Minister of Social Development) cited in a 2009 edition of Rise (an MSD magazine) empowerment meant not depending on government services:

“…this is a time where New Zealanders can dig a bit deeper and find the sort of resilience and the level of empowerment to actually get on and do what they do well, which is look after themselves.” (p.13)

What then are the key words in the terms of reference of the “independent expert panel” that might be worth watching closely?  Here are just four of the statements included in the scope of the panel. Government expects that they will consider:

  • The extent to which Child, Youth and Family’s current operating model is childcentric and focused onimproving results for children and young people.
  • The core role and purpose of Child, Youth and Family; and opportunities for a stronger focus on this, including through outsourcing some services
  • The effectiveness, efficiency and economy of Child, Youth and Family’s current spend and the extent to which it is delivering improved results for children and young people
  • The development of an investment approach for Child, Youth and Family to ensure spending is focused on results

At first sight words like childcentric seem self-evidently positive.  Surely a Child, Youth, and Family organisation ought to put children and young people at the centre? Perhaps, but there are other implications that need to be thought through. To what extent does being childcentric mean individualising interventions?  Might focusing on the needs of individual children detract from seeing the child in relation to family, whānau, iwi and community.  From the perspective of the child protection system in England, Featherstone, White and Morriss (2014) have argued strongly for a relational approach to child protection: one that considers children, families and communities as selves in relationship.  To do otherwise, they argue, is to ignore the daily reality of families and communities whose lives are conditioned by social and economic deprivation. The question is, in what sense will the expert panel construe being childcentric?

The focus on results is neither an unwelcome or a new idea.  Most modern child welfare organisations in the public and NGO sector are familiar with the idea of results driven and outcomes based planning.  But what does the panel mean by being focused on results and improved results?  It seems likely, given the makeup of the panel and references to previous working groups, that we are here referring to the New Zealand Government’s results driven performance agenda exemplified by the ten Better Public Services results (I urge you to compare these with the ten national outcomes of the Scottish Government if only to realise that the problem is not being outcomes focussed, but what your outcomes are).

However, to really get to the bottom of agenda of the CYF review, we need to pay attention to the New Zealand Productivity Commission issues paper on More Effective Social Services. Here, we need read between the lines no longer. This is as transparent as the New Zealand government gets. This paper lays out in plain English the real agenda of the review.  It discusses a range of approaches to achieving  “A system that delivers expanded or improved services at the same cost” (p.1) and explains the nature of the expertise of the panel.  With the exclusion of Duncan Dunlop (the good news story) they are experts in re-engineering public service business processes through commissioning, contracting, outsourcing, marketisation and privatisation.

Finally, in case there was any doubt, the reference to an investment approach is not an agenda for new investment in the development of innovative, participatory, responsive, public services.  It is a techno-rational approach to focusing limited resources on those aspects of Child, Youth and Family services that can be demonstrated to “increase effectiveness and promote wellbeing” using information technology and data analytics to target interventions.  All of which assumes that the complex, relational and uncertain nature of child protection practice is amenable to techno-rational solutions.

At the very heart of the debate about the CYF review is the question of whether the issues that beset Child, Youth and Family (MSD’s problem child) can be re-engineered by a techno-rational business case, or whether (as Featherstone, White and Morris argue) child protective services need to be re-imagined in order to achieve humane social work with families and whānau under pressure.  Unfortunately, imagination is not a strong point of

[First published on the blog Social Work Research on New Zealand]

Neil Ballantyne is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand and formerly Reader in Social Work at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland.

The views expressed in this blog post are my own, and do not reflect the views of my employer or any association of which I am a member.

One reply on “The Child, Youth and Family review: Reading between the lines”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.