What now for English's data-crunching agency

The interim CEO of the Social Investment Agency says it is in transition from being heavy in quantitative analysis to taking a more qualitative approach. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The Social Investment Agency is the embodiment of one of the previous Government’s key policy planks, so what does it do under a Labour government? The acting Chief Executive Dorothy Adams tells Thomas Coughlan.

The first thing most people want to know when they meet Dorothy Adams is why her agency is still here.

After all, its establishment was largely driven by former Prime Minister Bill English who never missed the opportunity push his big idea of transforming lives and maximising return on Government spending through the use of "big data".

The acting CEO of the Social Investment Agency is quick to tell them that while the National Government may be gone, the Social Investment Agency still has plenty of work to do.

That said, there is a noticeable change of approach. 

“The previous government had a social investment approach and this Government is forming what they’re calling an 'investing for social wellbeing approach',” Adams said. 

“Some tenets are the same, for example really understanding what works in terms of government-funded services and support.”

Adams said the most obvious change could be seen in the refocusing of some of the agency's priorities. The agency is broadening its focus from highly targeted interventions to broader measures of improving general wellbeing. There is less of a focus on fiscal measurement and much less of an emphasis on big data. 

“For whatever reason, the Social Investment Agency did get caught up with being the big data shop and the analytics shop,” she said.

“With this Government and with Minister [Carmel] Sepuloni they’re still interested with big data, but they’re much more interested in all the data sources that are available.”

This means looking at more qualitative measurement, rather than the more quantitative focus of the previous government. 

This has meant a change of staffing at the agency, which by Adams’ own admission has been “a very quant heavy shop".

“All of my analysts have had very strong quant [quantitive analysis] skills. What we’re doing now is start to marry those with people with more qualitative skills,” Adams said. 

The agency has recently begun recruiting for new roles and will be looking to bring more qualitative skills into the agency as a result. 

The costs and benefits of social housing

An illustration of the new approach could be found in two reports the agency has done on the effects of social housing. The first, released two years ago, looked at two groups of people - one who had a social house and another that did not.

It observed the costs incurred by the state on each group over a six-year period. It showed that the state made savings in Corrections, as people spent less time in jail, but spent more money on education as children stayed in school longer. 

Adams said the work was a good start.

“The problem with the work was that we only looked at a six-year window because that’s all the data allowed us to do,” Adams said.

“Even though you could only see education as a cost, you would expect that if you could look out much further eventually you could see that as a benefit,” she said. 

This week, Adams will present another paper on the effects of social housing, but this time looking at it through a more qualitative lens. 

For this piece of research, the agency used the Integrated Data Infrastructure or IDI tool, which pulls together information from across government agencies. It matched Housing New Zealand data with information from the General Social Survey to come up with a sample of 200 people. 

The General Social Survey allows agencies to observe qualitative data points, like how people feel about their wellbeing and quality of life. 

Melding the data together came up with some unusual results. People’s feeling of safety worsened in state housing, for example. 

Adams says data like this helps inform agencies that run front-line services. Agencies might better understand the long-term and sometimes unintended impacts of their interventions.

Adams is giving a presentation with more detailed results from the survey in Auckland on Friday. For more information, visit: https://www.psn.org.nz/lecture-series