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

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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.  

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