CYF reform: Moving from 'we must do something" to 'are we doing the right thing?'

Trouble-shooting the CYF reforms: Yes,we need to act, but there are two big political calls underlying the radical overhaul that raise questions about whether this is the best way to go

This is what everyone agrees on: Child, Youth and Family needs to change. No-one can look at how we deal with the troubled kids that need help from government agencies and say it's going swimmingly. So the question is not what we do, but how we do it.

The interim Rebstock report last year laid out that if you have been in state care, you are more likely to be on a benefit, have broken the law and failed to get NCEA level two. Now there's a chicken and egg/ self-justifying argument in there right away – of course kids from a home where the family can't cope are more likely to be at the bottom of the stats. But the point of state intervention is to make sure those kids have a shot at a better life, and if that's a better life, it's not good enough.

So, happily, there's a useful consensus around the need for action by government.

But just how we as a society care for these kids, well, there's the rub. Thing is, I'm always amazed by the lazy thinking around this. As we've seen in some of the political responses, media commentary and on social media in the past few days, when New Zealanders decide "something must be done", we are prone to backing whatever change is in front of us, without asking if it's the right change. Is it for the best?

This is where we have let ourselves down repeatedly on public policy debate, from Think Big to Rogernomics and on and on.

So I think it's worth asking some pretty hard questions about two big political calls at the heart of Anne Tolley's proposed reforms to CYF.

First, Tolley has said several times in recent days that she doesn't want kids to have to wait for the care they need and she doesn't care where it comes from. So she's open to much more outsourcing of services to children.

She still insists that the care and protection of children will be the state's responsibility, as always. And of course there have long been NGOs such as Barnados involved alongside CYF caring for kiwi kids. Where things will change is that government will be able to, "direct purchase the services that children need when they need" from private providers. She says those providers will be smaller local agencies, not big corporates such as Serco.

But you only have to look at Corrections' issues with Serco – not to mention the patchy record of Charter Schools, other services in the health sector and elsewhere – to see that contracting in others can create its own problems. Accountability is at an arms length, there are competing agendas (such as profit), and there's all the paperwork, legal work and bureaucracy of measuring and monitoring these contractors.

The age-old left-right question is why not just use government's own agencies to do the job themselves? Why can't government agencies be just as in touch with their communities, just as innovative and just as effective as these private providers are always held up to be?

One of the answers is always money. And it's hard not to ask again whether another National government hasn't followed the model that always justifies privatisation: Under-fund the public sector so that it fails, wait for the cries of "we must do something" from the public, then fix it by turning to the private sector. Oh, and in the midst of that you bring in someone like Paula Rebstock, a person who's never seen a problem she doesn't think the private sector can do better, to carry out a review.

Because here's the thing: Why not charge CYF with getting its own house in order? Why not just take responsibility as government and give your own organisation the money and staff it needs to do the job better, as it did decades ago?

The reason so many kids slip through the cracks is largely known by CYF workers, and it's largely because there are so few social workers and carers that they must fill their days rushing around putting out fires, rather than truly following a long-term care plan for each child.

Look at the fact that one private provider of placements for troubled children pays its caregivers around $600/child/week, while CYF on average pays $200. Clearly more money for CYF would help and attract some of the better caregivers to the state agency.

Every reason Tolley gives for more outsourcing to private providers – they're more innovative, they know their communities, kids need the help now – the question remains why CYF can't do that. With the right culture and funding, why shouldn't CYF be innovative, connected, quick and more. In fact, if the solution leaves us with CYF being less innovative, connected and quick than the private providers it works with, well, it's not much of a solution at all, is it?

The second political call is funding. New money will go into this reform, we just don't know how much yet. But the report says that significant sums will be taken from Corrections, Health, Education and other sectors to pay for this. The rationale: If the kids are treated right from the start, they won't end up in prison or rehab and so on, and so those other ministries won't need the money.

The problem with that logic is that those other ministries are going to lose their money now, yet the savings generated by getting these kids a better life (assuming it works) won't come for five, 10, maybe 25 years. And those already stretched social services in the meantime are going to have to "do more with less", as Bill English likes to say.

So even if this is the right move, the government is still trying to make radical changes to social services within the confines of such a tight fiscal envelope that they risk just moving the problems from one part of society to another, and under-funding more social services in the process.

Look at Corrections. It will lose money in this reform, yet it's already failing on its Better Public Services measure. Or Health. It too will be the poorer, yet from hospital meals to staff pay, DHBs are also clearly creaking under the strains of tight budgets.

So while the reforms have been largely well received, and Tolley's management of them has been impeccable and shown her in a very strong and sensible, it's still vital to not just accept that doing something is necessarily doing the right thing.