Statistics New Zealand’s potential Census emergency

Some time ago I made mention of a major failing of Statistics New Zealand in their internal operation and failure to successfully run the 2018 New Zealand Census. In April 2019 the Chief Statistician Liz McPherson admitted 1 in every 7 New Zealanders failed to complete the compulsory survey that happens every 5 years and is essential for planning government services, spending priorities and performance targets.

At that time it was discovered that the agency responsible for collecting statistical data on New Zealanders had filled a hole in its finances by funnelling $10 million from insurance payouts and capital. Upon realising that it was short, S.N.Z. asked for another $20 million for the 2019-20 financial year, which was to fill in a funding short fall of 15%.

Now it has been found out that S.N.Z. actually needs considerably more money – between $33-$43 million more each year for subsequent years. As a result the Minister for Statistics, James Shaw is having to ask the Treasurer Grant Robertson for millions more in funding that no doubt both of them would have hoped they would not have to fork out.

If the money is not stumped up, S.N.Z. has a list of ten products it was going to cull or severely restrict. They included surveys for research and development, land occupancy/transfers, energy use among others. This would affect planning and spending priorities for a multitude of agencies and items in the budget.

Allowing it to continue suggests lax responsibility by the Minister of Statistics in overseeing the agency. It suggests that the incompetence of Ms McPherson is going to be tolerated. Sure it might not be the biggest mismanagement crisis we have had in a New Zealand government department, but after telling the Government a second time in less than a year that its financial problem is worse than it thought, can we really be expected to trust Ms McPherson and her senior S.N.Z. staff to know what is going on?

Ms McPherson is contracted to S.N.Z. until the end of 2021, but one has to ask whether that should still be the case. If priority targets were set and closely monitored with the threat of sacking hanging over her head, could we rely on Ms McPherson to display the necessary honesty when she originally tried to hide the issue? I am not wholly sure we can.

Mr Shaw needs to make a couple of tough decisions and he needs to make them quickly. The first one is whether Ms McPherson is worth the risk that goes with forking tens of millions of dollars more in terms of making sure that they do not end up being wasted. The second is – assuming the full extent of the problem has now been revealed – whether the data provided from the Census by those who did manage to complete is enough to fend of an emergency Census.

Drastic? Yes. Unnecessary? I hope so, but if agencies on whose well being people depend such as M.S.D. and the Ministry of Health suddenly find themselves unavoidably short on critical data, do we have a choice?

Possibly not.

South Pacific development report: Not Yet Complete (and nor is N.Z.’s)

This week five South Pacific nations including New Zealand are turning in report cards on their development progress. But even before the United Nations receives them, we know what will be written on them by the U.N. Development Programme.

Not Yet Complete.

Not surprisingly this will attract a response asking how it has come to this. Some of the answers are so obvious we have somehow been blinded by them. One great example of this is the sheer number of indicators that need to be reported on. 230 have been set. In the South Pacific, which comprises two wealthy first world nations – Australia and New Zealand – and a bunch of small island nations so tiny most printed maps struggle to show them, a combination of administrative difficulties, lack of resources, tiny populations and corruption mean reporting on them all is highly improbable on the best of days.

Perhaps it is time to refine the Voluntary National Review – as these exercises are known – to something more realistic. From an office somewhere in New York it is highly unlikely unless the people designing these programmes have visited small island nations like Tonga, the Solomon Islands or Vanuatu, that they have any idea about the logistical, cultural and political challenges of carrying out such in depth data gathering.

Let us take Papua New Guinea for example. Remote, once you get outside Port Moresby, towns like Lae, Wewak or Rabaul on New Britain, one might have to travel for days on dirt roads across rivers with no bridges, few airfields to land aircraft. A translator fluent in the many dialects would be needed as well as a cultural advisor to navigate local customs.

Anyone who has done statistical research will know and understand the challenges of creating, maintaining and manipulating data sets. They will understand that that whilst the set needs to be comprehensive enough and deep enough to work in, there needs to be a degree of refinement about what types of data one is after. In recognizing these challenges perhaps the biggest problem for me though, is, whether all of this is actually necessary? Of course the United Nations needs to know how its individual members are getting on, but how much of this can they not gain from simply requesting that their member states focus on a simplified range of indicators?

New Zealand is lucky. With a comparatively well working system for gathering statistical data, our biggest problem might be more whether it is still current. Being one of the larger nations by resources, population and wealth, we could establish those 230 indicators. But, just as with Fiji, Papua New Guinea and elsewhere, a bigger question might be do we really need all of them? Our 2018 Census left some major gaps in what it was meant to supply those doing the analysis for various government departments. The Chief Statistician was found wanting in terms of her management of Statistics New Zealand’s biggest single (five yearly)task.

Before any of this happens though, New Zealand needs to be honest with itself. Our statistical system, whilst in good order compared to say, the Solomon Islands or P.N.G., is not good enough if it cannot conduct a Census properly. Maybe the Voluntary National Review of New Zealand should be postponed until we get our own statistics in order.

Time for N.Z.T.A. overhaul

New Zealand Transport Authority is a Government agency in strife. Racked by resignations, battered by damning staff survey responses and under the microscope internally for failings in the public arena, life must be tough being an N.Z.T.A. staff member.

The onus is on the N.Z.T.A. to acknowledge the harm it is doing to itself and to its staff. It becomes clear that the staff are feeling unappreciated, put down and lacking the empowerment necessary to perform their basic functions. When coupled with serious external failures such as not properly auditing a number of service stations and other automotive repair businesses on their issuance of Warrants of Fitness (W.O.F.), which led to hundreds, possibly thousands of cars being potentially improperly warranted, a issue of public interest is present.

Over the last year or more there has been a major recall of Takata airbags, after potentially fatal flaws were found in them. Takata airbags are found in a lot of New Zealand vehicles and the recall has resulted in thousands of cars having to get their airbags replaced. The recall is ongoing. Whilst this has not been linked to any problems at N.Z.T.A. that I am aware of, it reminds me of other road safety issues that N.Z.T.A. has been slow to act on:

  • Tour buses that are not roadworthy,
  • Bus drivers driving tour buses with little or no understanding or regard for New Zealand roads and conditions
  • Bus drivers who are not licenced
  • Explosion of large and oversized rigs on roads not fit to carry them
  • Dangerously long working hours for long haul drivers across numerous sectors

The safety of people, which should be paramount has been viewed otherwise. After major crashes, the Coroner examines the evidence gathered and makes recommendations. All too often – and this is not a problem unique to the transport sector – they are not fully implemented or simply ignored outright. And people wonder why accidents continue to happen.

The N.Z.T.A. is like any other public organization. It has accountability to the tax payer as much as it has accountability to the Ministry of Transport and the Government. This is in a decade where toxic internal workplace environments and their effects on employees has become a major occupational safety and health issue.Have the N.Z.T.A. got the message that for them to be a good employer, its internal culture, composition and leadership need to improve?

Or is the workplace culture of N.Z.T.A. a bit like the outmoded philosophy that it has operated on for too long now that motorways are king, whilst buses, trains and shipping are second class? I sincerely hope not, but I do wonder.

A return to study

Rather than write a piece about politics, or some other aspect of society today I thought I would look at my journey through tertiary education and how it has both benefited and frustrated my attempts to work in local government. It sheds light on

I became interested in local government because of my father working for North Canterbury Catchment Board and then later on for Environment Canterbury. I was interested because I realized that whilst utilities are boring to most people, their maintenance and well being is critical to our well being. From that I deduced that I could either sit back and hope that someone else looks after them for me and for everyone else, or I could take a proactive route and find a way of working for the agencies that are delegated responsibility for them.

After about 2002 I gave on my original goal of working on active volcanoes. My mathematics was not brilliant, and I was struggling with geology at undergraduate level. I figured out at the end of my undergraduate degree that I would need to go back and study something at postgraduate level, but I did not know what.

As I have high blood pressure I had to take a more measured route, and after a short break I went back to study in 2005 for a Postgraduate Diploma of Science in Hazard Management. I could not do it full time, did not qualify for Honours due to my G.P.A. Students then that did Honours and passed were pretty much a shoo in for job they picked, as indeed some of those in my year were talking about job offers they had picked up before they had even finished their academic study. I finished my Postgraduate Diploma of Science at the end of 2006.

After a 18 months full time work at a super market I picked up a job at Environment Canterbury in 2008, which whilst casual would last 2 1/3 years and give me a significantly greater insight into local government, where I have the most desire to work. During that time though, something happened in terms of the qualifications and experience needed. I have found in more recent years with a flood of graduates coming out of universities with recognized planning qualifications that my ability to get a job in a city/district/regional council somewhere is not flash unless I have a formal qualification.

This lead me to enrol at Massey University in 2013. No particular qualification was selected because I was just wanting to see if I still had the willingness to learn new stuff. I did, but I quickly realized I would have trouble funding it, and very reluctantly backed away. Three years and a botched attempt at returning in the second half of 2016 followed. I decided after that to enrol at Open Polytechnic which offered a Graduate Diploma of Sustainable Management.

Aside from being my biggest academic success to date, the Graduate Diploma opened my eyes to things such as environmental economics, the  role of the media and also issues around conducting high level research. I was able to test my ability to conduct such research in an assessment that was 80% of a paper and 20% of the entire diploma.

I believe that whilst many of the candidates are probably sincere in wanting a council planning job and may know stuff I do not, I wonder what sort of grounding they had. Did they do geography and get an appreciation for humans and the environment in a spatial and temporal context? Did they do any biology or environmental science and realize that there is more truth in Sir David Attenborough’s words than we think? Would they be there because they really genuinely believe in the mission of their organization or would it be just a proverbial vehicle for them to help drive until they found something better and more suited them. Whatever the case, I wish them the best, but at the same time I wonder.

Some of the decisions that are taken by elected councils come across as questionable, or give the impression that elected officials have taken on a mind of their own, there is a catch 22 situation involved. They have to maintain a degree of fiscal responsibility when planning budgets for each year, yet at the same time it is necessary to ensure that councils are adequately staffed and resourced for the work their permanent staff are expected to do. A half baked policy is more likely to be the output of a planning staff that lack either competent staff to do the job or the knowledge/skill base necessary. Given the number and complexity of the problems dogging elected councils around the country, maybe it is time to look at how and who they hire.

Now I am back for a Postgraduate Diploma of Planning from Massey University. I still have the same interest in council planning process that I had when I was doing GEOG 444 at University of Canterbury. I still believe that if given a chance I can make an honest go of a job. And if not, it won’t be for a lack of trying to get a foot in the door. Or for attempting to get relevant qualifications!


The nine lives of Phil Twyford

A cat has nine lives, or so the old saying goes. When I think about current Cabinet Ministers of the Labour-led Government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, none fit that description more accurately than Minister of Housing and Minister of Transport, Phil Twyford. And whilst I do not think it is possible to accurately account for the number of Ministerial lives lost by Mr Twyford, one might guess he is well on the way to his ninth.

Since coming to office as Minister for Transport, Minister for Housing and – until Ms Ardern stripped him off it – , Mr Twyford has really struggled with his portfolio’s. The shadow spokespeople for Transport and Housing in the National Party have managed to land a number of hits on the good ship Twyford, though none yet appear to be fatal.

But damaging they are. The two most notable fires on the M.S. Twyford are in the handling of the Kiwi Build programme and the handling of the Warrant of Fitness scandal.

The Kiwi Build programme, was meant to promise 100,000 affordable homes for New Zealand. A lofty target to meet and one that we are falling a long way behind on. Not only has Mr Twyford bitten off far more than he can chew, it would appear that he is being a proverbially messy eater, some of the specifics that Mr Twyford has mentioned have themselves turned into botch ups. For example Mr Twyford appears to have a quite different interpretation of the word “affordable”, which to most New Zealanders in terms of housing would be a two bedroom house costing no more than $350,000 instead of the $500,000 price tag he is offering. As for the rate of houses being built, only a few thousand have been put up so far in the first term of this Government.

The other damaging problem that Mr Twyford has to deal with is the W.O.F. scandal. This is a scandal which has left New Zealand Transport Authority red faced and having to admit thousands of people may have had Warrants of Fitness issued to their vehicles which should never have been certified. Not only that, no one seems to be really certain of how many registered garages have been issuing substandard W.O.F.’s and for how long. It begs several serious questions of the N.Z.T.A.:

  • Where has their regulatory unit been among all of this?
  • Are the W.O.F.’s issued by suspect garages going to be null and voided?
  • Do we know who all of the potential victims in this are?

Among others.

Combined these two problems make me wonder how long Mr Twyford can hang on to his job. It is clearly obvious that he has significant issues on his plate and very soon some serious answers are going to have to be given. N.Z.T.A. need to come clean immediately on the scale of the problem. The problem garages are going have to have their registrations suspended until they can prove they are fit to certify peoples cars, and the head of N.Z.T.A. regulation is going to have to be prepared to quit if this does not happen.

Equally seriously, Kiwi Build is obviously not going to work.  The range of issues faced extend beyond just the exaggerated promises and the massive over pricing of units. Do we actually have enough builders and other trades people to reach such a lofty goal? Does Kiwi Build actually have its priorities worked out? Or should we simply scrap it and start again?