On Budget day a Steven Joyce and Bill English walked across the bridge between the Beehive and Parliament House, there were two other Ministers walking with them towards the barrage of cameras waiting for the “budget shot”.

What was on show was National’s leadership; English and Joyce, of course, and then the pair most believe are currently the next leadership generation – Simon Bridges and Amy Adams.

Bridges’ ambition is well known and was on display when he stood for the deputy leadership last year.

He comes as close as any Minister gets to bringing some glamour to the Cabinet table and in his role as Transport Minister and Economic Minister he has ample oppurtunities to keep up[ a high profile in the media.

And as the new Leader of the House, he can dispense patronage around National’s backbench with prime speaking slots and opportunities to ask questions.

His path to the leadership is on track.

Amy Adams is a different proposition.

She’s become the go-to Minister for hard policy and management challenges.

Just look at her portfolios – Justice, Courts, Housing NZ, Social Housing, Associate Finance and potentially most importantly, Social Investment.

For a while, that was a rather vague title, a Minister without a Ministry or without any really clearly defined responsibilities but just over a month ago, the Government announced the creation of the Social Investment Agency.


The new super Ministry

This is a super-Ministry which will sit above Health, Education, Social Development, Corrections and occasionally other ministries arbitrating and directing the flow of funds into the social investment projects.

In many senses, it is a sort of Treasury for the social sector.

Adams, clearly conscious that she is open to being described as the most powerful Cabinet Minister, is anxious to downplay its overall role. She’s not altogether that convincing.

“It’s no more powerful than any other central; agency function,” she says.

And then adds: “It’s no more powerful than a Treasury.”

“When you think about it the Treasury have the job of having an all of system lens about fiscal impacts and spend.

“The agency is nowhere near as big and powerful as Treasury, but it also has that all of system lens in terms of social impact.”

Adams bubbles when she talks about the social investment model.

She believes it will be the major lasting legacy of the English Government. She points out that it has attracted international attention — even Theresa May has apparently been asking questions about it.

Simply, social investment is about using data to identify people in vulnerable situations so that the agencies can intervene earlier.

But it tries to look across agencies — at the problem before it identifies the potential solution.

That means breaking down traditional barriers between social agencies and that doesn’t come easily.

Adams talks about how a persistent drug offender gets sentenced to jail thereby becoming a cost to corrections.

But if Health put that offender through an intensive and successful drug rehabilitation programme, then Health ends up paying for what becomes a benefit to Corrections.

So at its heart, Social Investment is a new way of costing Government services which transcend the traditional departmental silos.

“I think if New Zealand can crack this and really think, operate and act quite differently, the transformational potential of it would be the sort of significant thing that over history you would look back on and think that was the mark when things started to change.

“It is the sort of change making that you can really only dream of regarding what it could mean for the future.”

But of course the goal is to solve social problems, and that has an obvious and attractive spin-off for a National Government.

“It is absolutely about reducing the size of the demand on taxpayers to fund a lot of very expensive services.

However, she says you can only go so far with the national level policy and data analysis.

“At some point, you have to get to a situation where you identify the families who need help, and we have to get to a point where we can go up a driveway and change a life.”

But one of the points of criticism of Social Investment is the question of who goes up the driveway.

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National have enthusiastically brought non-governmental organisations and even some for-profit organisations into the delivery of social services.

With the requirement that any proposed service pitch for money on the basis of what it intends to achieve and how it intends to demonstrate that it has achieved what it says it can, the door is open for the non-government agencies to compete on a level playing field for funding with the traditional Government agencies.

You can’t run it from Wellington

“That part – up the driveway – is absolutely based on local relationships.

“You can’t run it out of Wellington.

“It can’t be about someone here saying here’s the list of ten families go and drive up their driveways.

“It has to be someone who is in the community, who is trusted and respected by the community, who understands the community and builds a relationship with that family and is someone that family feels comfortable with.

‘It’s no good sending someone up the driveway if they’re reporting back to someone three tiers up in Wellington.

“So getting all those devolutions of authority, getting the trust and confidence in the people working on the problems, getting people with the right skills who can form the relationships is a critical part of that next aspect.”

Social Investment has been described as “incremental privatisation’ of social services.

She avoids agreeing with this but ends up in the same place.

“I would describe it as this Government having a much stronger recognition and belief that the Government isn’t best to do everything.

“If you are talking about working better with families, “privatisation” has a horrible corporate profit analysis – I wouldn’t come at it from that angle, I would simply say that my experience working with family violence victims has been that there are some amazing social service providers out there who are doing work with perpetrators and victims that is better than anything I’ve seen Government agencies do so why we would try and do it all ourselves.”

Data privacy

But the involvement of the non-governmental organisations raises other issues, most notably data privacy.

If Social Investment is to work, then the agencies need first to be able to identify families who have a series of indicators such as one of the partners having been in prison, a record of domestic violence or involvement with drugs. (There are several others).

This raises real questions about data ownership and privacy.

So far, the data has been anonymous and has been held centrally and has really only been able to be used to draw broad conclusions and perhaps to help evaluate how some specific schemes have worked.

But the use of the data as a pre-emptive warning to social agencies, particularly non-governmental ones, is problematic.

Currently the Ministry of Health tests four-year-olds for hearing and vision deficiencies. The parents get the results of those tests, but the schools don’t.

Most families act on the information from the tests – but some don’t, and those are the children who fall behind at school.

The situation is more acute for children from a household which is experiencing hard domestic violence.

“As a system we have to say at what point is it okay for us to drive up the driveway and say we’d like to work with you because we know they need help.

“How do we bridge that gap between it’s this house, it’s this street, these are the kids who are likely going to need some help.

“All those questions are really difficult.

“There isn’t a simple answer.

“What we’re working on at the moment is how and when we address those questions on their merits.

“The overwhelming preference is to do it by consent.”

Adams says that generally when consent is asked for, when the agencies point out how they can help, the consent is usually granted.

But there will situations where it is not.

She says there will need to be very clear rules about how information is used where there is not consent, about who can access it and for what purpose and with what transparency and oversight.

Any future regime will have to balance risk and safety against privacy.

Ultimately Social Investment requires that it be measured by its results.

“We’re beginning a process of thinking entirely differently about how we assess the benefit of what we do with a system that is based around people, not agencies.”

And this where she comes back to the Social Investment Agency. Its job will be to evaluate the effectiveness of all the social interventions and to use that information to drive decision making, particularly during the preparation of the Budget.

“It makes no sense to judge Health simply by what’s happening in health or Education by simply what’s happening ibn education because it is their involvement in peoples’ lives has an impact that is so much wider than that.

“So it is absolutely thinking differently about how we invest and how we evaluate.”

All up the social sector of the Government spends $61 billion a year.

Being Minister in charge of that is a very powerful position indeed whether Adams is prepared to admit it or not.