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Election 2014 - let the battle begin! by Craig Savage CA

So, Election Year is upon us, and the parties are starting to draw the battle lines and are showing us the fibre of their fabric – or starting the lolly scramble if you prefer.

In reverse order (purely because I want to discuss National’s announcement more) we had Labour announce their ‘Best Start; programme with $60 per week for families with new-borns. To make the policy palatable for the middle class they have said this will be available for families earning up to $150k. After the first year, some families will continue to receive support – however the income threshold is much lower as it tapers from $50k to about $85k.

They will also introduce 26 weeks paid parental leave, and a raft of other measures for early childhood education.

Clearly Labour want ‘children’ to be a major theme of the election, and they obviously feel they can make National look family unfriendly. I guess they also feel that anyone with kids will like the policy, which might snag a few National voters (perhaps those just needing a small nudge to switch after being unhappy with National’s asset sales?).

Given this policy programme is so extensive it is obviously expensive (estimates at about half a billion in 2020). They intend to pay for it by raising tax rates for ‘the rich’. How many people will receive money under the programme with one hand, and lose it in higher taxes on the other remains to be seen.

The Greens also announced a very child focused policy with their policy to introduce free food, school nurses and free after school care in low decile schools. Labour have already effectively endorsed the policy. The Greens also intend on making schools a ‘hub’ to help deal with wider family issues. Whatever your ideological stance, it cannot be denied that kids that are well fed and healthy learn better.

Before all this we had National announce some new positions in schools – and more money for star performers. They advocate getting the best teachers and principals involved in other schools to help develop best practice. It is also a way to entice the best principals into lower decile schools. The policy gives schools/the government the ability to give great teachers a way to earn more without leaving the classroom (at the moment the only way to increase income is to go into management).

On the surface, I really liked this policy, but on digging a bit deeper I’m not so sure. Firstly, the incentive of $50k to principals to go to struggling (read low decile) schools and turn them around sounds like a great way to get good principals there. However, the appointment is only likely to be for 2-3 years, after which they will either get their bonus and leave, saying ‘job done’ or not get their bonus, and leave saying ‘bugger that’. The communities that most need this help are likely to be those most in need of stability. As is shown time and again, the kids in these schools are more likely to be exposed to less than idea home lives, and school can be a place where there is some reliability and stability. Having some hotshot come in and change everything every few years is unlikely to make much long term difference.

Also, the method of judging whether someone is qualified to be the hotshot is not easy. National Standards may seem like a good way, but they give no context to the school. Is the principal of the decile 10 school filled with kids from good homes who gets 95% of people at or above national standard better than the principal of a decile 2 school with many disadvantaged kids who gets 35%? You simply cannot tell.

As much as we would like performance to be easily managed, it just never is. There are always a huge number of unmeasurable factors that come into play, not least of which is that people will start working to the criteria they are being judged on. Imagine doctors being paid by the number of patients seen. Firstly, doctors are going to be less likely to want to deal with a complicated case, and are going to be keener to get you in and out the door as fast as possible. Clearly, this wouldn’t lead to better medical care.

Badly managed performance pay systems can be big turn offs for staff. If they feel that their actual effort is not reflected in the measures, or they are not measured fairly it may actually demotivate staff.

Given it is so hard to get an effective performance pay system in place in a purely commercial organisation, it is hard to see how bringing something in similar in a public service industry will actually work.

I suspect there will be a lot more of these sort of things to think about this election year – and you are unlikely to see much analysis in the media. As always, it’s important to see beyond the sound bites on the six o’clock news!


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