Thursday, December 4, 2008

Outcomes are the Result we Want

One of my recent experiences caused me to realise that the New Zealand Public Service has everything backwards. It turns out that we serve them, rather than vice versa.

Take the example of an Early Childhood Centre. It is a community based centre, licensed by the Ministry of Education. The Education Review Office is about to do a review of the centre and sends out to the Licensee a schedule of what is to be covered in the review - pages of stuff. And what they are going to review is documentation and procedures that the centre has in place. The ERO does not seem to care about the outcomes. They seem to have a naive assumption that if their prescription is followed then the unstated outcomes will be achieved.

Surely the only way to measure the effectiveness of something like an Early Childhood Centre is to undertake some kind of longitudinal study on the children who pass through the Centre. Look at their skills and knowledge at the time they enrol, and compare that with when they start school. Of course there are lots of other influences on a child, such as family background, but if on average the children attending one Centre are better prepared for school than those going through another then something could be concluded about the effectiveness of a Centre.

While on the subject of children, surely parents have an unstated responsibility to prepare their children for adulthood, to be sociable and productive adult members of society. How parents get an infant from their initial state of helpless dependence to being an independent, responsible young adult is a program that parents have to customise to each child. Having three children, it is obvious that what works with one does not necessarily work with the other two, so parenting must be adaptable. (You can probably guess where I am going with this.)

Governments are again too prescriptive in the area of regulating parenting. Take one example - children are not able to be left at home alone under the age of 14 years. Firstly, for many circumstances this is impractical, especially in rural areas or in solo parent situations. Secondly, it does not take account of individuality. No one from [whatever agency would enforce that law] could have all the information available to them that I have in order to decide if I can leave my child(ren) at home alone. For some it might be that even at 14 it might be inappropriate for the eldest to be left responsible for a younger sibling, due to the younger one's behaviour or needs. In other instances a 12 year old may have the maturity to cope. [In the end a lot comes down to the skill and aptitude of the parents involved.]

Governments should not be running this stuff as tightly as they do. And the regulations that are put in place should hinge around achieving societal outcomes not the means of achieving them.

As similar sort of thing exists in the Health Sector and Local Government. There are so many bureaucrats managing the minutiae of regulations that they have lost sight of the "outcomes" they are supposed to be achieving. Health would be a good candidate to hand over to the private sector, but I fear that the mentality of the bureaucrats would be a hindrance. Those from the public sector whose responsibility it would be for setting standards and monitoring them have no idea how to set standards that are based on outcomes. They would likely want to pass on the box-ticking, paper shuffling, soul-destroying bureaucracy they have created.

We need new thinking. We need to break free from the bureaucratic shackles that dictate the "how" and "how not" and instead focus on outcomes. How we get to the outcome is not important.

I am not advocating that the end always justifies the means. We have laws and other societal regulations that ensure that unsavoury means are not used to achieve the desired ends. What has happened, as I have pointed out above, is that those laws governing the the means, have been exploded into petty regulations that are prescriptive and, in the end, counter productive.

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