COMMENT:

Three years ago I interviewed a senior cabinet minister who wanted the welfare ministries to work more cooperatively. What she said made perfect sense and the only thing that puzzled me was, why hadn't it been done already? Like, decades ago? Every government I can remember has promised to make this happen.

She blamed the public service. When they all have their own patch, she said, they're
responsible for it and no one else can come in and bugger it up. They like it like that. But if you integrate their work, suddenly no one is responsible for anything, so they risk copping the blame for something other people do. Silo thinking is deeply, deeply entrenched.

In head offices more than on the ground, perhaps. I reported last week how police were arresting meth dealers in Northland but cooperating with social workers to provide help to meth users. Throughout the country, police work with teachers who work with district nurses.

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But in the ministries, according to that cabinet minister, the barricades were up.

Late last year another cabinet minister outlined to me exactly the same problem. Different government, note, with different expectations of the public service, but same old problem.

How outrageous. I've heard the same story often enough from the other end, too. Talented people of goodwill working in the public sector, who are thwarted by a management culture that says avoiding risk is more important than making progress.

Mind you, those politicians, on both sides, were also covering their own backs. If teachers should work more closely with social workers, they need better resources. If probation officers are to be a vulnerable individual's go-to contact for multi-agency support, they too need more help.

Punitive governments take away that help. Even more compassionate governments tend to do little more than they need for baseline credibility. We haven't had a government that's seriously tried to reform the structure of welfare from a progressive perspective since 1935. What would Michael Joseph Savage say, that's what I want to know.

This week the Salvation Army released a bracingly frank report, called State of the Nation. Youth suicide is up and so are serious assaults on children, prisoner reoffending and hardship payments for families.

Those things come on top of other alarming statistics. Sixty percent of police callouts are to incidents of domestic harm. Over two thirds of prisoners have a history of mental health and/or substance abuse problems, and are functionally illiterate. With almost any social statistic you can name, Maori are at the bottom.

None of this is news. It all points to a failure of social programmes and suggests the problems of deprivation and alienation are far harder to overcome than we like to think. It suggests we're doing it wrong.

Especially in relation to drugs. The Salvation Army report says drugs – especially meth and alcohol – are ravaging our most vulnerable communities and they undermine every effort at positive change. Our drugs policy is catastrophically not working.

We'll have a referendum on cannabis law reform next year, and anyone who says the right answers are easy is ignorant. But it is surely clear the status quo cannot be an option.

The report did have some good news. Youth crime and teen pregnancies have both fallen substantially; unemployment and the prison population are also down. Things can get better.

The Government has pointed to steps it has already taken, including: raising incomes for 384,000 families by $65 a week; free doctor's visits and prescriptions for under 14s; extended paid parental leave; the new Best Start payment of $60 for every child, for up to three years.

All of that helps. It's valuable. More is needed and there will obviously be more in the Wellbeing Budget, in May. But will it create systemic change?

I was in Kaikohe a fortnight ago. Shop after shop on the main street has closed down. Glass fronts smeared with dirt; sticks of broken furniture abandoned in the gloom within. People drive in for takeaways and drive away again. Hardly anyone is out walking.

The Sallies' report says most violent crime is concentrated in just 5-10 per cent of our communities. The last government, under Bill English, knew that and wanted to target welfare assistance where it's most needed.

English called it social investment and he was right to say: it is possible to identify those most at risk, and what they need, and provide it.

We need to do that. But we need a much better debate about how, and some very good rules to prevent it becoming more punishment, betrayals of privacy and another layer of victimisation.

We also know about the importance of the first three years of life. We believe our children, all of them, have the right to live in warm, dry homes, safe from domestic harm, nourished in mind, body and soul. That's the country we want to live in, isn't it? That's what we celebrate as the spirit of Waitangi: our joint determination to make it true.

So what should happen in Kaikohe?

The town has dedicated people working in the schools, welfare, health, community arts, police and more. It has some entrepreneurial and community-minded business people, there are work programmes, it has a bunch of sports and cultural clubs. It has several marae and it's near some big economic ventures like forestry.

Kaikohe used to be a thriving services hub and it still styles itself the heart of the Mid-North. You drive west to the Hokianga, east to the Bay of Islands, south down state highway 15 all the way to Maungatapere and you're overwhelmed: it's beautiful round there.

What would it take to set the town back on its feet? Another way of asking that: how do you rid Kaikohe of the scourge of meth? How do you make sure every infant has the support they need to grow into a functional five-year-old, able to flourish when they get to school? How do you ensure they continue to flourish? What pathways into adulthood do you offer them?

Raising children well is about whole communities being functional. Why don't we do it? I don't mean why doesn't the state do everything for people. Nor do I mean government agencies intimidating struggling families, rendering everyone alienated and angry.

It's about strengthening communities. Helping them create viable pathways away from crime and support networks to help people stay away. It's cultural, social and economic.

What if we said to the community in Kaikohe – in all the Kaikohes in this country – okay, blue skies, don't worry about the money or the logistics right now, get yourselves together, take your time and tell us: what do you need? What would they say?

What if we gave them a few bright minds, people good at thinking differently and good at bringing others together, to help with that?

And what if, at the same time, we started rethinking the role the schools? Schools can't fix everything but they can be valuable community hubs. A big goal here: to get adults into schools, to overcome the disengagement of parents whose only experience of schooling was bad, so they have no expectation for their own children.

Oh, and while we're about it, how about we find a big bad wolf of a politician determined to blow down the silos in which all those risk-averse public service managers are hiding.