Beware! Personal Data Grab for Funding is Based on Dreadful Policy Design

Jess Berentson-ShawTax and Welfare

The Privacy Commissioner is not mincing words on the issue of requiring social service providers to give citizens personal data to MSD in exchange for funding contracts. Words like “insufficient consideration to unintended consequences”, “Insufficient consideration of alternative means”, “Real risk of deterring people most in need…. put people further at risk” and “make individuals invisible to policy makers”.

Most telling for us at the Morgan Foundation are these words “MSD has not clearly explained its purpose for requiring individual client information.” It is telling because this is what happens when policy is driven by an ideology not by science: unethical and damaging things start to happen in a vacuum of consideration of what works. The ideology that is driving this work is of course targeting, and in social policy in New Zealand we are super charging targeting despite a tsunami of international and local evidence telling us it does not work.

When you super charge targeting you want to know about all the people all the time in all the ways

Targeting essentially involves trying to identify those individuals in your society most in need of help and delivering the services you believe they need to improve their lives straight to them. In order to deliver these services straight to them you of course need to know who “they” are. As part of the wider “social investment approach” this government is taking, the identification of “broken families” (as the Prime Minster has called them) and individuals has become an accepted and acceptable process.

But as all scientists know, collecting data about people without an excessively good reason for believing it will improve their lives, or improve our understanding of what works, is an ethical no go zone. The Government, it seems, is putting itself above the ethical standards for collecting data (and experimentation on people in general). It is this that essentially the Privacy Commissioner is raising a great big warning sign about.

Ask for a little bit of help with budgeting and next thing you know your visit to the GP for an unintended pregnancy or depression is held on the Ministry of Social Development’s files for some seriously foggy reasons. Ultimately this is because Government is not looking properly at the best evidence for what helps citizens to thrive.

The big communications problem for those of us in evidence-based policy is that this super targeting can sound quite good to the general public.

Targeting has the ring of “truthiness” about it

We love targeting in this country. Business people like it, the Prime Minister likes it, and political parties have loved it since Ruth Richardson started us down the targeting path. But while targeting sounds good if you talk about in terms of “limited funding envelopes” and “responsible fiscal management”, it is kind of rubbish in reality, especially in relation to families who are not thriving – it is expensive and prone to spectacular failures. It is social policy by “truthiness” – sounds like it must be true, but turns out not to be.

The UK recently undertook four years of a programme called “Troubled Families”. They intervened in 120,000 families to try and “turn around the lives” of those they identified as most ‘at risk’ – families without work, on low incomes, with mental health problems, in material deprivation, without qualifications etc. After four years an evaluation showed the programme made no difference to these families, it was no better (or worse) than doing what the Government was doing for all other families (which is not enough). In the scientific world we call this evidence of ineffectiveness – or “yeah no surprises there – it doesn’t work”.

And while those of us who understand the science of these approaches are hardly surprised, we are always disappointed when yet again Governments spend money and vulnerable families’ time and energy, on something we know (and have been consistent in saying) will not work. And this is exactly what is happening in New Zealand with the social investment approach.

As an editorial from the BMJ, following the findings of the Troubled Families intervention, articulated

“The final lesson is not to expect a targeted intervention aimed at only some determinants of a problem to achieve transformative effects for entire areas or populations. It is well established within public health science that the most effective way to alleviate the overall burden of illness in a population is to ensure interventions include the large numbers of people at low or medium risk rather than focus solely on the small numbers at high risk. The same is true of social outcomes such as teenage pregnancy and indeed violence”

The Government is ignoring the best evidence and it will cost us all

All of us, the Prime Minster and those working in the Ministry of Social Development included, want all families in New Zealand do well. There is no vast conspiracy to keep people down. Children who can explore and realise their potential regardless of their family’s wealth or circumstances, are an asset to our society. Families who can thrive, have the opportunity to form functional long-term relationships with each other, and create an environment that is healthy for them and their children, are an asset to each other and society. The problem is that this will simply not happen if policy is blinkered as to what works.

Families in New Zealand are struggling under rising costs (especially with regard to housing) and insecure work. It is very difficult for families to give their children what they need to thrive, let alone create the positive conditions they as adults need to be healthy and happy, under such circumstances. Just look at what is happening to the health of our children.

New Zealand and Australia are the only wealthy countries in the world to face a level of Rheumatic Fever in children seen only in very poor countries. It is due largely to the excess of unhealthy, overcrowded houses, and general deprivation too many families in New Zealand are experiencing.

It does not by any sensible person’s read look like these families are the victims of “success” as the Prime Minster recently called our housing crisis. How can we possibly argue that our country, where children are contracting infectious diseases at a rate only seen in shanty towns in India where people live with no sewage or running water or vaccinations, is a successful one?

So what does work?

Echoing the BMJ’s summary of the public health science, our very though review of the evidence (Pennies from heaven), shows that unconditional income support for families who are struggling in New Zealand is a critical first step to improving children’s lives. All families would also benefit from more assistance in the first few years of a child’s life. The birth of a child can be a trigger for families tipping over into deprivation, so preventing that is important. Children do so much of their critical development (brain and immune system growth) during those first years of life and new science shows that insufficient investment in children in those years has life long impacts on their brains and bodies – this has massive implications for our society and economy.

No more targeting and no more unethical data grabbing

We are approaching social policy in the wrong way and as a result the Ministry of Social Development is over stepping the line to obtain personal data from people for no known benefit. Where does it stop? If there is no science informing the data grab what does inform it and where do we draw the line for what we deem “appropriate”? What values are at the heart of all of this work? Because if we really believe that all children and families deserve the opportunity to thrive, why do social policy by populist appeal? Why not just follow what works to deliver a thriving society for all?

The Privacy Commissioner has said no more to this data collection madness and made four recommendations, the most important of which may be this:

“MSD should consider how it can meet its policy objectives in ways that infringe less on personal privacy and reduce the risk of unintended adverse consequences for New Zealand’s most vulnerable people.”

In other words read the science people and just jolly well apply it.

Beware! Personal Data Grab for Funding is Based on Dreadful Policy Design was last modified: April 10th, 2017 by Jess Berentson-Shaw
About the Author

Jess Berentson-Shaw

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is a science researcher working for the Morgan Foundation. Jess holds a PhD in Health Psychology from Victoria University. Jess has over 10 years’ experience working on applying science and evidence to public policy. She worked on improving the use of science in public health practice in NZ, before working as a Research Fellow at University College in London, where she researched how doctors and clinicians translate scientific evidence into their clinical practice. While in the UK she also developed a national data collection system, which was used to determine what factors contribute to poor outcomes for women and babies during pregnancy and birth. On her return to New Zealand she directed a research group that specialised in the independent evaluation and application of research and science to health policy and practice. Jess loves science and what it can do to make the world a fairer place.