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Budget 2019

What the Wellbeing Budget needs to succeed: trust, support and understanding

Barry Baker Barry Baker

Now that we know what the Wellbeing Budget is, the question is how we can create the right political and social environment to support it, says Grant Thornton’s Barry Baker.

Growing up in Southland in a single-parent home, my family relied on the Domestic Purposes Benefit and the generosity of charities like Birthright. During that time, the growth in New Zealand’s GDP wasn’t an advantage that extended to my family. While New Zealand’s economic position was apparently improving, our wellbeing wasn’t being reflected in that data.

For governments all around the world, GDP is still the primary indicator used to decide how to manage a country’s economy. But GDP is too imprecise a measure to be the only indicator of how a country is doing, especially when it comes to looking at things through a lens of “kindness, empathy and wellbeing”.

That’s where this year’s budget comes in. It’s designed to put people’s wellbeing and the environment at the heart of government policies. I applaud the government for this – understanding what actions can improve the quality of life in this country is good for everyone – but executing it won’t be easy by any means.

Our political climate isn’t conducive to trial and error, something a government attempting to be kinder and more empathetic will need to succeed. Our adversarial political system is designed for opposition parties to actively attack government policies, even when they might agree with them. You see it with every change of government – the approach is to chip away until change is achieved. Governments aren’t voted in, they’re voted out.

Furthermore, much of today’s media is motivated to highlight criticism, outrage and waste in all stories relating to the government, especially when it comes to social spending. Coupled with our political environment, it can create a vicious cycle that leaves no room for trial and error. The machinery of government must be seen to be prudent and risk-averse: God forbid if you want to have a decent Christmas party to celebrate a tough year.

In turn, we’re often left with a sense of distrust among groups like charities and social enterprises towards the government. These are entities that have a wealth of information relating to certain sectors and communities, but are often hesitant to share that unique insight. This is unfortunate, as having a comprehensive set of data to draw on is important. It’s data that can be used to look at a particular town or neighbourhood and understand what’s driving (or not driving) social mobility. It’s data that can be used to understand what works where, and how such successes can be replicated elsewhere in the country.

So, how can we enable the public, private and not-for-profit sectors to feel comfortable to share their information with one another? Information that could help measure and drive initiatives in line with the priorities of the Wellbeing Budget.

It also begs the question of how we can create an environment that allows us to focus on long-term goals, make mistakes and support policies regardless of partisan politics.

I salute finance minister Grant Robertson and his team for trying to progress a society-changing project that will be criticised at every point and will take years to show any results or progress. But I think an initiative this big needs all the help it can get. I’m not confident that the government can do it by itself, and not just this government, but any government in the years to come.

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