Investing in children

This guest blog post is by Mike O’Brien. Mike is an Associate Professor at the School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work at the University of Auckland and has previously been the Head of the School of Social and Cultural Studies at Massey University. Mike chaired the Alternative Welfare Working Group in 2011. He is a Board member at Te Waipuna Puawai and of the Auckland City Mission and is a member of the Impacts of Poverty and Exclusion policy group for the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services. He is also the social security spokesperson for the Child Poverty Action Working Group. In this post he discusses the meaning of the “investment approach” in the context of New Zealand government;’ review of Child, Youth and Family Services.

The recent announcement of the ‘expert panel’ on ‘modernising’ CYF included a requirement for the panel to consider ‘the development of an investment approach for Child, Youth and Family to ensure spending is focused on results’ as part of the terms of reference. This reference to ‘an investment approach’ has been a central feature of social and welfare reforms since the report of the Welfare Working Group (WWG) in 2011. It is included too as an important component in the recent report from the Productivity Commission where the investment approach is linked with insurance as follows: ‘The Government’s Investment Approach is an attempt to increase the effectiveness of social services through better investment and targeting of investment. It is also about providing information and incentives to support early intervention, rather than waiting for a crisis. The Investment Approach adopts investment and insurance tools to prioritise clients and select interventions based on the expected reduction in future welfare liability’ (New Zealand Productivity Commission, 2015, 186).

The ’investment approach’ is reflected in most government documents on social and welfare services over the last five years and underpins both the work of the ‘expert panel’ and the proposed changes to funding of social services reflected in the recent Cabinet paper (Cabinet, 2015). But, what is ‘the investment approach’ and how does this approach align with the development of social investment over the last decade? In brief, there is a similarity in the language but a gulf in the approach and orientation. Morel et al. (2012) suggest that the social investment approach as reflected in many European countries and in some of the international literature from the OECD (OECD, 1996) has two competing directions. For some commentators it is seen as the next step on from the destructive neo-liberal regime that has dominated social and economic policy over the last quarter century; for others it represents a continuation of that regime, albeit wearing different clothing.

A key feature of a comprehensive social investment approach is based around two core principles, equality and protection. As Morel et al. (2012, 363) note: ‘equality and quality must be at the centre of the social investment approach’. In these emphases, the New Zealand ‘investment approach’ (sometimes described loosely by Ministers as ‘social investment’) is certainly far from the social investment framework developed in many of the European countries. The emphasis in this country on an insurance framework in which the emphasis is on reducing financial liabilities, on targeting through tools such as the predictive risk modelling framework, on work – any work – rather than skill enhancement and job quality and on a minimal state and market mechanisms is the very antithesis of social investment. Rather, it has all the features of the contemporary neo-liberal project.

Certainly the recent budget extends the protective dimension minimally, although less so than early discussion of the $25 per week benefit increase and the changes to Working for Families indicate. The depth of child poverty will be reduced but the extent is unlikely to be altered significantly without a comprehensive plan to move forward, a plan that is conspicuous by its absence. Much more likely is a tightly targeted approach which identifies (and stigmatises) those identified as being ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘at risk’. There is a real danger that the work of the ‘expert panel’ will attempt to take social work down this path, with significant implications for undertaking effective and ethical practice.


Cabinet Social Policy Committee (2015) Investing in Services for Outcomes: Community Investment Strategy.

Morel, N., Palier, B, Palme, J. (2012) Towards A Social Investment State? Ideas, policies and challenges. Bristol: Policy Press.

New Zealand Productivity Commission (2015) More Effective Social Services. Draft Report. Wellington: New Zealand Productivity Commission.

OECD (1996) Beyond 2000: The New Social Policy Agenda. Paris: OECD.

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