It may walk like social investment & quack like social investment, but it's not social investment

The current approach to social investment suggests we can use big data and new technology to better understand who will access public services and fix them. But this is not social investment

"I am from the government and I am here to help you – even though you did not know you needed help". 

In the wonderfully prescient film Minority Report, the central idea is that the police have found a way to identify who is going to commit a crime before they do it. 

The same ability to predict the future is now the aim of social policy. As the story goes, we are getting better at being able to predict who will seek help from social services. There is even talk of being able to name these people. 

Now, with the help of big data, and in the spirit of Minority Report, if we can say who they are before they present themselves at the door of a social agency, we can imagine the end of all social problems. 

For anyone struggling to find an answer to seemingly intractable social problems, the suggestion we can predict who will need help and get it to them before they need it is nothing short of revolutionary. Think of the lives saved. Think of the money that will not have to be spent!

If all of this sounds like science fiction, it is not. According to Treasury it's called “social investment”. 

Social Investment is about improving the lives of New Zealanders by applying rigorous and evidence-based investment practices to social services….It means using information and technology to better understand the people who need public services and what works, and then adjusting services accordingly.  What is learnt through this process informs the next set of investment decisions.” (My emphasis). 

To be serious for a moment, an evidence base is building that allows us to get a much clearer picture of the people who use public services. We know, for example, if a child is born into a household where violence, alcohol abuse and poverty are present it is likely they will have problems and become a client of one or many social agencies. Armed with this kind of knowledge, and making use of new technology, it's possible to say who these children are and wrap services around them before things turn ugly.

But there are problems with this approach. Labelling is one of them. Many of the people reading these words will have grown up (like me) in circumstances that were less that propitious. Yet life somehow turned out alright and they are no doubt very glad that they were not marked out as someone who was doomed to need help. 

The more general problem is that the approach Treasury says is social investment is not. 

Although Treasury, along with many others, likes to think they discovered the idea of social investment, it has been around for some time.

In Social Justice: Strategies for Renewal the British Commission on Social Justice (1994) wrote that:

“…investors combine the ethics of community with the dynamics of a market economy. They believe that the extension of economic opportunity is not only the source of economic prosperity but also the basis of social justice. This demands strong social institutions, strong families and strong communities which enable people and companies to adapt, grow and succeed. Investment in people is the top priority. Investors see security, not fear, as the basis of renewal. They argue we must engage with change – in the home or at work – if we are to extend social justice.”

Compare and contrast what Treasury has to say with the Commission’s view. The first is about individual investment, the second is about social investment – lifting our capability as a nation to address those seemingly intractable problems. 

The agenda for social investors includes making lifelong learning practical, making sure people have jobs with a living wage, building an active intelligent welfare state that helps people negotiate the inevitable changes that impact on families and workplaces, guaranteeing security in retirement, supporting communities and families, ensuring access to quality housing and collecting enough tax to allow for proper levels of investment. 

There is also an element in social investment that acknowledges we are living in a world where change is happening quickly across a very wide front. Social investment encourages us to engage with change and move the society (that is everyone) from where it is to where it needs to be.  

For me, the social investment approach as it used to be understood is so powerful that I cannot help but wonder why it has been reduced to the pallid version favoured by Treasury. 

The answer is, of course, politics. Over recent decades, the deregulation agenda followed by most democratic nations has meant, according to Will Hutton, promoting “business and finance to ride the tide of globalisation by lowering regulation and taxation…”. A version of social development that focuses on economic and social circumstances does not fit easily with a single-minded commitment to making the world fit for business. This is the case even though earlier versions of social investment made it clear that the economy and individual businesses would do better in a positive social environment. 

Deregulation goes much better with a view that says people who cannot keep up with the pace of change are the problem. The best we can do show compassion and provide help when they present themselves at the doors of social agencies. 

Of course, individuals need effective and efficient assistance when they are in trouble. But if their circumstances do not change as one case is dealt with another will be forming. It is a no win situation. 

And it can lead to some outcomes that ought to worry us all. 

Over the same period of time that deregulators have dominated public policy we have been living through rapid globalisation. A lot of people have benefitted, many have not. Those who have not are making themselves heard through the ballot box as they show support for populist leaders who offer to take them back to the “good old days”. Trump, Brexit, Le Pen, Wilders, Putin, Hanson, Peters are examples – and the list is growing.  

But, because the past is the past, as Tony Judt would say, there is no going back. The populist uprising is going to end in tears. 

There is, then, an urgent need to understand what social investment really means. It should be at the heart of any programme that purports to address social problems and prepare our societies for a future that can only be positive if we are prepared to invest heavily in ourselves.