The shifting goalposts of the Government's public service targets

Prime Minister Bill English is again trumpeting his social investment approach with new investment. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Prime Minister Bill English has continued to stamp his own mark on the Government, introducing a new set of public service targets revealed in a pre-Budget speech in Wellington.

First introduced by his predecessor John Key in 2012, the 10 measures set goals in areas including child health and welfare, crime, and improving the public's interaction with the Government.

Good progress has been made on some, while others have stagnated.

One particularly troublesome target has been reducing re-offending by 25 percent.

The lofty goal was intended to be met by June this year, but by September last year re-offending had only dropped by 4.4 percent and was actually starting to rise again from its low at the beginning of 2014.

Obviously deciding the target was not a good one to keep in the public eye, on Wednesday the Government announced it would be replaced by a new crime target of reducing the number of serious offences by 10,000.

This will include violent and gang-related crime, alongside burglary and other serious theft.

The single justice target will also replace a second previous goal to reduce total crime rates by 20 percent and youth crime by 25 percent.

The latter was achieved, but total crime is currently down 14 percent.

Justice Minister Amy Adams denied the Government was being disingenuous or manipulating the numbers.

Adams said re-offending rates would still be reported and would still be a priority, as to reduce serious crime it needed to be tackled.

"Whether you measure it in a percentage or as a real number, I think sometimes a real number is actually more tangible to understand. Actually, that's going to be a stretch target but if we can have 10,000 fewer of those sorts of crimes happening each year then New Zealand will feel a considerably safer place to be."

Sexual and family violence will be excluded from the serious crime reporting target, as the Government wanted to see more reporting in this area and said including them would skew the numbers.

Despite the Government's claims, it's clear this is a shift to an easier goal and an admission of sorts that the re-offending rate has defeated them.

Other changes to the targets include replacing Early Childhood Education participation rates, which reached almost 97 percent last year, with a goal to have 90 percent of pregnant women registered with a lead maternity carer and to aim for higher standards in writing and maths.

The goal is for 80 percent of year 8 pupils to be achieving at or above the national standard - but it immediately drew criticism from NZEI.

The union, no fan of the national standard system, called the target a disaster that would put more pressure on children and their teachers.

Another change saw a target specifically targeting infant immunisation and rheumatic fever replaced with a broader goal.

The original target specified reducing rheumatic fever hospitalisations to 1.5 cases per 100,000 children. Since the target was announced rates have dropped 23 percent, but saw a spike last year to about three cases per 100,000.

This, along with the high number of respiratory hospitalisations each year (about 40,000 under 14s), will have some worried.

The replacement target aims to reduce the rate of hospitalisations of children for preventable conditions by 25 percent, including respiratory illnesses.

But with most being caused by damp and cold homes, there is a concern that number will be hard to reach without addressing New Zealand's poor rental stock.

Bill 'social investment' English

English also took the opportunity to announce new social investment spending, something he has long championed.

Of course, still being several weeks out from the Budget the details were sparse.

Of the $321m package, it remained unclear what the bulk of it would be spent on. The speech focused on details of the $69m targeted at youth.

Breaking it down, $34.7m will go to support children with behavioural issues, $28.1m to expand the Family Start programme, and $6m to help children with communication issues.

Family Start is a home visiting programme to support families of newborn children and with a funding injection will expand by about 570 places annually.

The money to be spent on behavioural difficulties will be focused on children under eight and is expected to see the number of children receiving specialist support rise from about 5000 to 6000.

The public may have to wait until Budget Day to find out how the remaining $252m of the package will be used.

More spending targeted at families is likely and could include an increase to the Accommodation Supplement and Working for Families tweaks.

When asked if families could expect further sweeteners, English did not rule out a more comprehensive family package. "We've looked at a wide range of options and final decisions will be pretty soon, and they'll be outlined in the budget," he said.

The new targets (all by 2021 unless stated)
1. A 25 percent reduction in people receiving main benefits by June 2018.
2. A rise to 90 percent of pregnant women registering with a lead maternity carer in the first trimester.
3. A 25 percent reduction in the rate of hospitalisations of under-12s for preventable conditions.
4. A 20 percent reduction in the number of children subject to physical or sexual abuse.
5. To have 80 percent of year 8 students achieving at or above the national standard in writing and maths.
6. By 2018, to have 60 percent of 25-34-year-olds holding a qualification at Level 4 or above.
7. 10,000 fewer serious crimes.
8. A 20 percent reduction in the median time to house priority clients on the social housing register.
9. Business costs in dealing with the Government to reduce by 25 percent.
10. To have 80 percent of the 20 most common public service transactions completed digitally.