By Luke English
Posted: Updated:

Better information yields better results. In an effort to reduce crime and improve outcomes for people using social services, the New Zealand government is now embracing data and analysis as drivers of social policies. By examining data gathered over longer periods, coupled with a new set of measures focused on outcomes, for the first time the government is able to track and reduce rates of crime and reoffending.

Under the banner of ‘Social Investment’, the government is applying a new and broad set of tools that focus primarily on people and communities at high risk of becoming criminal offenders or victims, and testing these programmes for effectiveness.

Social Investment evolved out of three separate but related policy initiatives. The first was the ‘Drivers of Crime’ policy launched in 2009.

The Minister of Justice at the time said the traditional policies focused on prosecution and ignored “the social and individual currents that put a person in [a] moment where they are just about to commit a crime1”.

He went on to say that if crime continued to be tolerated at its (then-current) levels, the country would be continuing to tolerate inequality. What was needed was a “new approach” to reducing offending and victimisation and address underlying drivers of crime2.

His comments about inequality stemmed from figures that showed that in “2009, six per cent of crime victims in New Zealand experienced half of all crime3.”

Luke English infoA small, already disadvantaged minority of New Zealanders has historically borne a disproportionate burden of the social and economic costs of crime. Reducing drivers of crime is a policy that would reduce inequality in New Zealand.

We know that the underlying drivers of crime are complex and enduring, encompassing issues beyond justice and corrections. Factors like family dysfunction, poor education, substance abuse, mental health, and intergenerational transmission of behaviour within communities in cycles of deprivation4, often Maori5, have a significant role to play.

In a comment repeated in official documents over many years, the government recognised its interventions tended to be fragmented, disparate, and reactionary. These siloed services focused on single components of issues when the drivers of crime are interrelated6.

The second policy change arrived in 2011 with the government’s Welfare Working Group reforms. Along with changes in entitlements and work testing, the Working Group report recommended using a liability model to show the life course of people coming on and going off benefit7.

The third policy shift came in 2012, when the government announced its Better Public Services (BPS) results. The outcomes were 10 numerical targets, eight of which were relevant to social policy covering increased educational achievement, reduced crime and child abuse rates and health service delivery. The BPS results focussed on people at risk of social dysfunction and changing their outcomes, with targets used as performance framework for government agencies.

Drivers of crime, welfare reforms and BPS results have all evolved into the new ‘social investment’ approach: an iterative, evidence-based approach that identities families and individuals at risk and requires agencies to create processes that measure impacts and adapt services as a result. This is important, because social investment has shown how much more effective government services can be.

The Hon Bill English (New Zealand’s Minister of Finance) described the social investment approach as the Government using the best information available to understand who needs government services the most and where, whether interventions work or are counter- productive, and whether different interventions will work better8.

A good example of social investment in action is the recent Integrated Data Report (IDR) report from the New Zealand Treasury9, which sought to understand the numbers and characteristics of children interacting with Government agencies, and measure life outcomes and associated costs by using data from multiple government agencies10.

The findings of the IDR were astounding. In one study group, around one percent of children by age five were known to Child Youth and Family Services, had a parent or a caregiver with a corrections sentencing history, and had been supported by the bene t for most of their childhood11. By the time these children reached age 36, the estimated costs to the taxpayer were five times higher than the average, costing on average $256,100 more than their counterparts12.

Luke English infographic 2

A similar study to the IDR focussed on an older cohort of New Zealanders14, and found a very strong association between poor outcomes (using mental health or addiction services between ages 20 and 22, being on a benefit for five years) and geographical location15. By using location-based deprivation measures, the study was able to say with certainty that “youths at risk of poor outcomes tended to be concentrated in specific areas such as the Far North, Kawerau, Opotiki and Wairoa”16. The study made the potential of the social investment scheme plain, stating:

“Integrated administrative data can be a powerful tool for government and other agencies to identify at-risk groups in the population. Limitations in some of the data mean that the findings need to be treated with some caution. However the results provide a useful insight… the data used for this type of analysis will continue to improve.”

Now, the Government can direct programs at specific places, for people with specific problems. Not only is the precision and responsiveness of this data analysis astonishing, it’s also scalable. The Government’s modelling will become better as more data becomes available, whether through improved coordination of existing data or simply collecting more of it.

The above studies demonstrate the power of being able to drill down into information using data tools. Information can then be fed into targeted programs and better public service goals, like crime reduction.

For example, the Government re ned its crime reduction objectives to focus on specific families at risk within the ‘Drivers of Crime’ policy framework. Agencies with inputs to these families were listed within a ‘whole of government’ approach, so for the first time agencies servicing the same people could all properly see each other on paper, and start to work together17.

Recognising that a ‘whole of government’ approach could be diluted when dispersed over so many agencies, the Government said it would look at issues with four commonalities18:

  1. The involvement of multiple agencies: to test issues in linkages, transitions, referrals, accountabilities, service coverages and coordination;
  2. Relevance to Maori: due to the enduring omnipresence and over-representation of Maori in New Zealand crime statistics;
  3. An evidence-based approach: to ensure proposals were supported by empirical data suggestive of implementation and funding
  4. Breadth of benefits from achievement of one goal would ow through into other sectors of government and local community.

Using these commonalities, the government’s four priority areas within the ‘Drivers of Crime’ were19:

  1. Focus on improving maternity and early parenting support in the first three years of life
  2. Address conduct and behavioural problems in childhood
  3. Reduce harm from alcohol, specifically in young people, and improve treatment
  4. Manage low-level repeat offenders so they don’t progress to higher levels.

By 2013, ‘Drivers of Crime’ produced encouraging results. For example:Hospitalisations Infographic

  • The rate of preventable hospitalisation for Maori and Pacific children aged under 5 from the most deprived areas of NZ declined by 22 per cent and 17 per cent respectively from 2006/07 to 2011/12;
  • The proportion of Maori children from the poorest areas who had not received any early childhood education before starting school declined by 17 per cent since 2006.


Key elements of this approach have been applied to reducing the welfare liability as described by the Ministry of Social Development, which implemented the liability model for welfare.

Hon Anne Tolley, New Zealand’s Minister of Social Development, kindly agreed to provide a statement for this article, which shows how an understanding of cost drivers guides policy:

Anne Tolley

“We have implemented a liability model through welfare reform, to give us information about which groups spend the longest time on welfare so we can target support to help them into employment and independence.

In the last four years,the long-term liability of the welfare system has reduced by $12 billion, or a reduction of 900,000 future years on benefits for clients. The Ministry of Social Development tracks the liability of groups year to year so they know who to target services at and how well those services are working.

For example, young people who go on a benefit before they’re 20 have some of the highest lifetime costs of any group. Through the Youth Service we are able to wrap support around them, help them into education and training and help them manage their money. We know that every dollar invested in the Youth Service has a return on investment of $2.40.”

The Drivers of Crime policy was a necessary precursor for the implementation and inaugural success of the social investment scheme and better public service goals.

Despite the new analytical tools and data collection, New Zealand still has challenges in its approach to achieving better social outcomes. While crime rates have dropped, reoffending appears to have plateaued. Educational achievement has improved, but assaults on children and instances of rheumatic fever have not markedly improved. It will be interesting to see if the government’s rigorous empirical approach can become embedded and long-lasting.



  1. “Hon Simon Power, Drivers of Crime Ministerial Meeting: opening remarks” last modified 3 April, 2009, drivers-of-crime-ministerial-meeting/speeches/opening-remarks
  2. Ibid
  3. Dr Elaine Mosman, “Victims of crime in the adult criminal justice system: A stocktake of the literature”, October 2012, p 13, assets/Research/Victims-of-Crime-Lit-review-Final- edited.pdf
  4. Cabinet Domestic Policy Committee, “Addressing the Drivers of Crime”, 21 October 2009, p 3, http:// publications-and-background-information/documents/ Addressing%20the%20Drivers%20of%20Crime%20 Cabinet%20paper.pdf
  5. Ibid, 2
  6. Ibid, 3
  7. Dupuis & Gorman et al, Welfare Working Group, “Reducing Long-Term Bene t Dependency”, February 2011, Downloads/Final%20Report/W WG-Final- Recommendations-Report-22-February-2011.pdf
  8. Bill English, Questions for oral answer “2. Budget 2015 – Social Investment Approach”, 25 February 2015, qoa/51HansQ_20150225_00000002/2-budget- 2015%E2%80%94social-investment-approach
  9. Crichton S, Templeton R & Tumen S, “Using Integrated Administrative Data to Understand Children at Risk of Poor Outcomes as Young Adults”, 14 September 2015, policy/ap/2015/15-01
  10. Ibid, 3
  11. Ibid, 4
  12. Ibid
  13. Ibid
  14. Templeton, R, Tumen S et al, “Using Integrated Administrative Data to Identify Youth Who Are at Risk of Poor Outcomes as Adults”, 9 December 2015, publications/research-policy/ap/2015/15-02
  15. Ibid, p 4
  16. Ibid
  17. Cabinet Domestic Policy Committee, “Addressing the Drivers of Crime” (see footnote 4)
  18. Ibid, p 4
  19. Ibid, p 7


The Author

Luke English is a solicitor, practicing commercial and construction law at the Vincent Young law firm in Sydney.
As a freelance writer he has an academic background in English, psychology and economics, and a particular interest in public policy.

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