How likely young New Zealanders are to be "on track" at age 21 has been mapped using a powerful government database.

In a new report by Treasury, researchers analysed anonymised data from 56,310 Kiwis born in 1993 on whether they had attained or enrolled in a course at level four or above, were employed and earning the "living wage", or self-employed.

Seventy-eight per cent were identified as "on track".

Treasury also compared Maori and non-Maori young people. At 21, just over 50 per cent of Maori were "on track", compared with nearly 80 per cent of non-Maori.

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The big data project is a continuation of the government's "social investment" work, which has examined how certain risk factors can indicate poor outcomes later in life, such as failing school or ending up in jail.

More than 40 per cent of those children identified as "high risk" were "on track" at 21 years old, the report found.

Between 13 and 17, more than 50 per cent of the high risk group had changed high school at least once, compared with 27 per cent of the other young people in the cohort.

The social investment approach has been spearheaded by Prime Minister Bill English, who in a recent ministerial reshuffle appointed Justice Minister Amy Adams to a newly created social investment role and the associate finance portfolio, which will be linked.

The aim is to use data to better understand which New Zealanders are likely to struggle in life, and target funding and social programmes to prevent that happening.

In the previous analysis, Treasury identified factors that make a youth more at risk of experiencing hardship later in life - a CYF finding of abuse or neglect, being in a benefit-dependant home, having a parent who has received a corrective sentence, and having a mother with no formal qualifications.

The 1 per cent of 0- to 14-year-olds with all four indicators were found to be four times more likely to drop out of school and nine times more likely to serve a prison sentence.

Before the age of 21, the high risk group were much more likely to be a teen parent, have used addiction services or served community or custodial sentences.

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Adams said some of the social investment work would already be instinctively known by social workers and others on the frontline of service delivery.

"But other aspects will challenge existing thinking. For a long time front-line workers have only been tasked with dealing with distinct, siloed aspects of what is often a much more integrated set of challenges faced by a family or individual.

"We have to understand the whole of the dynamic to know how best to support that family to reduce long-term need across a number of areas."

Labour's finance spokesman Grant Robertson said the principles behind much of the social investment work - such as the importance of early intervention - were sound.

"But data is necessary without being sufficient. You have to match it up with real world experience. [Data] doesn't necessarily tell you the right programme to respond with.

"The evidence we have seen so far - the so-called social sector trials, they have not gone well. The National Government is still coming to this with the same ideological blinkers on. Which is, the goal has got to reduce the size of government.

"In some programmes you might, but in others you might want more government involvement to make it work."

A key challenge for Adams this year will be to work out how to negotiate more access to New Zealanders' private information to further the social investment work by finding all at-risk individuals.

In a speech last year, English floated the prospect of "testing notions of consent" - asking people how much information they were willing to share and have shared.

"Our offer to the New Zealand public is this," English said. "We will commit to delivering services that are better targeted and which will make a real difference, and we will stop spending on services that don't work - if you will let us make better use of your data."

The work to negotiate privacy considerations is being led by the data futures partnership, chaired by Dame Diane Robertson, the former City Missioner at the Auckland City Mission.

Former foster child Daryl Brougham with his wife Emily Gao and daughters. New Zealand Herald Photograph by Dean Purcell.
Former foster child Daryl Brougham with his wife Emily Gao and daughters. New Zealand Herald Photograph by Dean Purcell.

'I don't get excited by stats and data'

Daryl Brougham was 11 when his social worker told him he would end up in jail.

Put in state care from the age of 3 months, Brougham had dozens of foster placements growing up and suffered beatings and psychological abuse.

"I was told that I would amount to nothing. Now I hold a Masters in social work, I'm a published author, I'm an international keynote speaker."

That experience makes Brougham wary of the risk that analysis could lead to young people being labelled.

The Government's social investment uses an anonymised database, but Brougham said extreme care was needed when targeting extra support.

"I don't get excited about stats and data at all because they have tried to use that before and it just crumbles. The data that is imported is simply quantity, not quality.

"No matter what system, what database, whatever you look at - if we don't change the 80 per cent paperwork, 20 per cent engagement we are going to have a major problem. Frontline social workers are not being frontline, they are being locked behind an office desk."

Brougham, who has worked for Child, Youth and Family and told his own story in a book, Through the Eyes of a Foster Child, said the steps taken after a data analysis were what mattered.

"Even if you had all the data in the world, my question to the Government is what resources or what quality are you now going to put into that family, apart from assessment after assessment after assessment?"