Are job cuts at I.R.D. really a sign of modernisation?

It has been announced that in a bid to modernise the Inland Revenue Department and the services it offers, 1,500 jobs are going to changed or ended between 2018 and 2021.

But there is a limit as to what a computer or automated service can achieve. There will always be a few clients whose queries on a given day do not fit within the design parameters of a computerized system, no matter how well run it is. There will always be inefficiencies in handling the data feed, again no matter how well run it is.

I have rarely reached the I.R.D. on the phone on the first attempt. Nearly always I have had to be placed in a queue to be rung back sometimes over an hour later. Okay, fine, but I am sure there have been instances when for one reason or another people ringing I.R.D. simply did not have an hour to spare waiting for a call back.

There will be a whole host of other issues as well, big and small that will not fit in the straight jacket of modernization. Such as:

  1. Elderly and those on low incomes without access to a computer will rely on paper and telephone for details, so there will always need to be someone who can talk to a deaf or sight impaired customer
  2. Computers are not good at spotting mistakes (and possibly not at spotting deliberate deception – only a human can do that), and artificial intelligence still has work to do in this field
  3. For purposes of quality control, there will always need to be human oversight of some sort

Optimum calibration might not be a term in government agency jargon yet, but it might as well be. It would refer to a system with the best calibration that can be achieved – everything is running as well as it can, the system parameters are suitable and doing their job – in other words anyone who thinks a “fix” is needed would be well advised to leave it alone. In a perfect world, “optimum calibration” would be the definition of everything is running perfectly. The reality, somewhat different as it is, is that maybe 95% of the time this is nearly true.

The services expected to be provided by a Government agency are considerable. As the collector of tax on the Government’s behalf I.R.D. is loathed by some, but the vast majority of people understand that in order for the Government to pay for its expenditure it has to raise money somehow. The tax code in New Zealand might seem complex and at times inefficient to a New Zealander, but when you compare it to say the United States Federal tax code – more than 1 million words long someone told me – perhaps it is not so bad.

So, what does one make of a big agency tasked with one of the most essential jobs in New Zealand?

Imperfect would be a good word. Like all New Zealand Government agencies it has been subject to controversy. In 2012 it was subject of a huge privacy breach involving more than 6,300 people. At the time the Minister for Revenue, Peter Dunne, said that measures were put in place to stop it happening again.

But compared with the I.R.S. in the United States or Her/His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs office in the United Kingdom, New Zealand is comparatively lucky to have a transparent and – for the most part – accountable revenue collector. I sincerely doubt there is a single person in the U.S. who knows their federal tax code for what it is inside out, and every time I think about it I wonder how much would be gained by Americans from a bottom up overhaul of it.

So, when you next get on the phone to the Inland Revenue Department to query your finances, ask for assistance, compliment them or lay a complaint, just remember the person on the other end has to pay tax too. The very vast majority of them – there are always a couple of rotten apples in each department – honestly want to help. Be grateful that their call centre is in Wellington and not in another country.

E.Q.C. report nothing new

Another E.Q.C. report – the same old story: disgruntled claimants, botched repairs and no one being made to take responsibility.

After 7 years of dealing with the consequences of the 04 September 2010 and 22 February 2011 earthquakes the latest E.Q.C. report was not surprising in the least, except perhaps with regards to how scathing it was.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Megan Woods has been in the job for 8 months now. Annette King who was appointed Chairwoman of E.Q.C.’s Board has been instructed by Ms Woods to accept the findings and begin implementing the recommendations immediately.

All well and good so far. But having spent most of a decade waiting for satisfactory resolution to their claims and fair, full and final payouts to match, many will be short on patience. Some of the claimants are in their 80’s and should not need to be still dealing with problems that might have started when they were still in their 70’s. These are the people who should be happily living out their final days enjoying their time with their relatives and friends, doing things they like and not having to worry about what the Earthquake Commission is or is not doing about their property.

The Earthquake Commission for its part needs to play along with Mrs King’s implementation of the findings. No time to delay, no games to play – anyone who begs to differ should be shown the door forthwith..

The report, whilst welcome has some serious issues to overcome, namely:

  • What will be the period in which claims can be settled – open ended settling periods are not acceptable and have been the cause of considerable and well documented angst among claimants
  • Will Cabinet approve the reimbursing of insurance companies if they agree to immediately settle on all over-the-cap claims? Ms Woods says that she will, but given the financial pressure it is likely to add, it remains to be seen if Cabinet will come on board
  • The standard of repairs needs addressing – the repairs should not have been signed off in the manner that they were until someone with neutral oversight could check the standard
  • Hire the necessary staff to do the job and stop pretending everything is under control when it is clearly obvious that it is not
  • Tell E.Q.C. that non-compliance is not an option

It is with guarded optimism that I wait to see what will happen. Having been in Christchurch for all of the magnitude 6.0+ events – 04 September 2011 (7.1); 22 February 2011 (6.3); 13 June 2011 (6.4) and 23 December 2011 (6.0) – as well as nearly all of the aftershocks between magnitude 5.0-5.9 and felt the stress, I can totally understand the frustration and anger. It is long since time to get this mess fixed.

The cautious budget

Treasurer Grant Robertson delivered the first Fiscal Budget of the Labour-New Zealand First-Green Government yesterday. Whilst disappointing Labour supporters and National supporters alike, the Budget kept a promise to exercise due fiscal restraint, acknowledging the poor international economic climate, the impact of the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes.

Thre was little presented in the 2018 Fiscal Budget that New Zealanders had not already been made aware of. A number of reasons exist for this:

  • The Government, as is often the case, had already outlined what it considered to be the major announcements
  • Prior to being elected, the Government had announced that it would establish a set of fiscal responsibility rules that woul ensure that the three parties acted in a cohesive yet responsible way
  • The first budget is normally the most cautious as the incumbent government wants to establish its credentials, particularly if its image has been damaged by Opposition claims

One the major announcements made was that Conservation would get  $138 million for pest control. Money was also allocated to schools, to help fill in gaps left by the previous government, though teachers signalled their considerable discontent, with one principal going so far as to say that he would not his teaching staff walking if they thought the budget insufficient. Perhaps the biggest cheer went to Health.

Budgeting expectations: New Zealand Fiscal Budget 2018

Today is the day that New Zealand and the world see the first budget of the Labour-New Zealand First-Greens coalition Government. It will be the first delivered by Labour Treasurer Grant Robertson. In anticipation of the budget, here is a recap of what has been announced and what can be expected.

The broad shape of some large expenditures have already been announced. The details that are still to follow on these will come later as those expenditures are put into effect. So, what are they?

  1. Transport – A total of $28 billion has been announced for fixing transport in Auckland, a sum that caught many by surprise, and which will be spread out over a 10 year period
  2. Housing – KiwiBuild was given a N.Z.$2 billion capital advance in December to get underway the construction of 100,000 new homes in New Zealand, and $100 million was allocated in the first pre-Budget announcement of which $37.1 million comes from existing budgetary measures
  3. Christchurch – The Government made significant election promises to Christchurch, which include supporting commuter rail, assistance for those struggling with insurance claims
  4. Foreign Affairs – you can see my earlier article acknowledging the $1 billion allocated to the Pacific and other aspects of New Zealand foreign affairs, but it is worth noting the reopening of the embassy in Sweden which closed under the National government

With so many big announcements already made, one might be wondering if Labour has any more tricks left in the bag. Mr Robertson will no doubt be acutely aware of other areas of funding for which announcements will need to be made at some point. They include the courts, prison and Police so that we may get on with dealing to the methamphetamine epidemic taking hold as well as trying to address why going to prison does not seem to be working as a sentencing tool.

At some point Mr Robertson will also have to address the potential of a nurses strike for better pay and conditions, which if answered will cost several hundred million dollars. In this case though, I wonder if it not so much an inadequate budget as inept District Health Board planning – shortly after Labour was elected in 2000 I heard that scrapping the District Health Boards in favour of a central funding model would save $750 million per annum, and whilst I am not necessarily suggesting such a move, a review of them is tempting.

Other areas that will need an increase in funding are Research, Science and Technology – New Zealand has lagged behind other O.E.C.D. countries for years in terms of investment into science. Some scientists have observed what appears to them to be a war on science by politicians with agenda’s that do not necessarily conform to the known facts, particularly around environmental issues.

I personally doubt Labour will make any radical new announcements today. Most of what happens I suspect will be building on existing announcements. Still, this is a big day for Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens. Voters, despite National’s attempts to show the contrary will probably go easy on them until a sense of direction (or lack of)becomes obvious.

Mr Robertson will deliver the Fiscal Budget at 1400 hours.


Nationals hypocrisy in Parliament

When New Zealand went to bed on 20 September 2017 no one was quite sure who had won the election. National had the largest number of seats, but no allies. Labour did not have enough seats either, but DID have allies. Many thought that National would be returned to power for a historic fourth term, something not seen since the days of Keith Holyoake.

So imagine the disgust of the centre right, the howls of rage and pain that echoed through conservative New Zealand when the New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters, whose party held the balance of power decided to support Labour. The dismay of the centre right media from bloggers such as Cameron Slater and David Farrar, to commentators such as those on Stuff and Newstalk Z.B. was palpable

As a result of National’s loss, news media that are normally centre-right in character are expending considerable effort trying to undermine a Labour Government  that New Zealanders understand has not yet had time to prove itself. Most New Zealanders would be quite prepared to wait at least until the end of the first term in office and then make a judgement.

However National has some issues that will only go away with time – and acknowledgement of them. They include undermining the mental health system, failing to overhaul the Ministry of Social Development when it had the opportunity and dealing with the drug scourge. Its rush to undermine Labour is premature, since the latter has not even completed its first year yet.

Several examples can be given of how National is behaving hypocritically in Parliament as the major opposition party:

  1. National Party members who are meant to be sitting on the Business Select Committee were purposefully absent the other day – the reason being they wanted to send the Speaker of the House, Trevor Mallard a message about what they thought of the Speakers performance
  2. National have claimed that the Labour Party are not being transparent in Parliament regarding legislation
  3. It is rather rich when one considers that in the first two years of National being in office they passed more laws under urgency than the Labour Government of Prime Minister Helen Clark did in its nine years. National, like Labour before it, tried to pass legislation that posed a clear breach of New Zealand human rights law (Labour – Electoral Finance Act, 2006; National Crown Minerals Crown Land and Protection)Amendment Act 2013)

There are actions that can be taken to improve the transparency of the overall process and make the political parties in Parliament respect the need for public transparency better than they currently do. One is requiring the Governor General to refuse to permit the use of urgency should it be found that political parties use it to pass contentious legislation that will run into significant public opposition. It has been noted that the Speaker of the House took away supplementary questions because of concerns about how those questions were being misused.

Right since Day One of this Government, Stuff and Newstalk Z.B. have led the charge against it. Constantly Stuff has posted articles even when the Government was still being formed about its fragility. The authors seemed to forget that National had to watch its United Future ally Peter Dunne complete his gradual decline from a 9 member Party in 2004 to being a completely disbanded party in 2018. National also had to watch A.C.T. tarnish itself with corrupt Members of Parliament as well as toxic former M.P.’s like Roger Douglas.

For their part Mike Hosking on Newstalk Z.B. has consistently attacked Labour, both as an Opposition Party and in Government. His bias was severe enough to prompt a significant petition against Television New Zealand letting him moderate the election debate for the major parties in the 2017 General Election. With the Government still in its early days and still another 18 days away from delivering the 2018 Fiscal Budget, which will be its first, are Newstalk Z.B. and Stuff not prematurely jumping the gun?