How can New Zealand design a better society?

Sea-faring explorers. Suffrage. Sheep. Fencing wire. ‘Rugby, racing and beer’. New Zealand’s national identity has been linked to a number of things over the years. But the culture is constantly evolving and, in 2018, it feels as if the country has reached a tipping point. We’ve shaken off most of our colonial ties, we’re embracing our multicultural society, we’re working in new industries, we’ve lost our inferiority complex and we’re deciding what path to forge when it comes to big global issues like climate change. Societies aren’t born. They’re made. So, how do we design ours? And are we being bold enough with our policy ideas? Elly Strang takes the pulse of the nation.

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Who are we? It’s a simple question, and yet it’s one New Zealand seems to grapple with as a nation. We know what values we’d associate with a quintessential Kiwi: modest, down-to-earth, relaxed. The no.8 wire, can-do attitude. And yet, the first questions we pose to visitors reveals our need for outside approval: ‘What do you think of it here? Do you like it?’

New Zealand is a young country, in both geological and societal terms. In fact, it was the last large and habitable landmass in the world to be discovered by people when Polynesian settlers arrived on Aotearoa’s shores some 700-odd years ago.

Centuries later, the Europeans arrived and made New Zealand a colony of the United Kingdom. It was only when waves of Pacific and Asian migrants begun arriving in the 1970s and started to change the ethnic make-up that New Zealand began to question its colonial ties to the mother country. Both European and Māori historians argued that around this time, the country realised it didn’t know who it was in terms of national identity.

This tension in what defines our collective nationalism has continued through to the present, with perhaps no greater sign of this inner turmoil between New Zealand’s formative years and its forging of a new identity than the great flag debate that gripped the nation in 2016.

Then Prime Minister John Key called for a referendum and blasted the current design’s Union Jack and four stars representing the Southern Cross, saying it represented an older version of colonial New Zealand.

But once the debate begun, submission finalists seemed to skew heavily toward flags that had an element of new, yet referenced Britain’s Union Jack and the Southern Cross we share with our neighbours across the Tasman, like the Silver Fern flag.

One submission that was completely brand new in aesthetics and meaning, Red Peak, only made it into the finalists after a petition to make it an option for voters garnered over 50,000 signatures.

Unsurprisingly, when New Zealand went to vote, the Silver Fern design won the first referendum before being toppled by the status quo.

Perhaps this was linked to our uncertain sense of identity – after all, it’s widely understood that social and cultural factors shape human behaviour, which in turn shapes government policy. Or as cultural researchers Dennis Coyle and Richard Ellis put it in their 1994 book Politics, policy and culture, ‘culture affects policy, and policy affects culture’.

The same goes with businesses and culture. Companies don’t exist in a vacuum, and so as citizens become increasingly vocal about social and environmental issues, they’re demanding that businesses adapt and play a role in civil society, from paying their taxes or cleaning up their supply chains. And businesses can also influence culture by taking a stance on political issues and using their budgets and platforms to push for change, whether it’s backing LGBTIQ rights in an advertising campaign or extending maternity leave dates past the Government’s threshold.

So, since the flag referendum two years ago, there are signs the country is feeling bolder. If it were a person, perhaps New Zealand would be someone in their mid-20s, cautiously feeling their way into their most authentic sense of self and gaining confidence after a period of 'experimentation', heavy drinking and regret.

Once again, we’re world-leading in government: we have a prime minister who’s the second world leader ever to be pregnant while in office (and, it bears mentioning, with her unmarried partner).

We’re on the lookout for a chief technology officer to join government and steer us forward into an uncertain future, though we haven’t quite found the right candidate yet.

We’re also touting our cities as innovation hubs that talented people from far-flung corners of the globe should pack up their belongings to come live in, a sales pitch that doesn’t come easy to a nation of notoriously humble people.

But there’s still much to be decided in terms of New Zealand’s long-term direction in an era of extreme change, and high-stakes problems to tackle, like jobs being lost to automation, the housing crisis and climate change, to name a few.

These are all areas that could be challenged with some forward-thinking policies, but are we confident enough in who we are as a nation now to make some big calls?

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Mucking in

Perhaps New Zealand’s lack of opining over its identity is, in fact, a Kiwi trait, and we’re too busy making stuff happen to mull over the details.

New Zealand Initiative chief economist Eric Crampton arrived in Aotearoa in 2003. A North American import, he affectionately calls this nation “the world’s last sane place” and says he likes the fact New Zealand spends very little time on existential naval gazing.

“Canada had endless rounds of handwringing over what it meant to be Canadian, whether it was anything more than just not being American – it felt like every other episode of some of the news, magazine, and programmes on the public broadcaster were about this,” he says.

“New Zealand just gets on with it.”

He says in small ways, he can see parallels between Canada’s little-brother issues with America and New Zealand’s relationship with Australia.

“But where Canada largely defined itself oppositionally – being that which America isn’t – New Zealand’s is far healthier,” he says. “New Zealand policy is much better than Australia’s, but if Australia did manage to come up with a good idea, nobody here would oppose it just because it was Australian.”

He says this mucking in, get-things-done culture is visible in parts of the public sector, too.

When Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck wanted to launch rockets from New Zealand, MBIE moved quickly to draw up a world-leading regulatory framework in which it could operate.  

However, he says given New Zealand’s size and geographical obscurity, the country is also under a lot of pressure to ensure it doesn’t implement bad policy.

“Rich countries that are not distant from their major markets can afford policies that feel good but wind up being costly or doing harm,” Crampton says. “New Zealand really can’t.” 

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Moving with the times

According to futurist and head of StratEDGY consultancy Dr Stephanie Pride, whether New Zealand is ready to tackle some meaty problems or not, the seismic shift society is currently going through demands change.  

“We’re going through a transition that is as significant as the transition from the Agrarian Economy to the Industrial Economy,” she says. “You’ll hear people at the World Economic Forum in Davos talking about the fourth industrial revolution, but I think that’s quite a narrow, limited view of the degree of transition we’re going through, as that keeps the primary lens as an economic one.

“Actually, what we’re going through is a shift so big it’s going to reorganise everything in society and how it happens, and that means changes to governance as well. Unless government policy is framed within that frame, individual policies aren’t going to have enough foresight to face that.”

She says the role of Government is to help citizens manage through that social and economic transition, but it is hard to get traction and move nimbly at a government level.

“There’s a tendency in New Zealand to look to Government for all the answers, but we’re moving into a period where no Government will be able to have all of the answers,” she says.  

“The issue is Government alone can’t manage the transition. It has to work with other actors, so the challenges we’re facing need Government and business and citizens to work together to manage our way through the transition in the way that gets it the most benefit and the least harm. No one party can do it on their own.”

Jess Berentson-Shaw, co-director of research and public policy collaborative The Workshop, says the Government setting some shared values would help give the nation confidence to deliver and embrace innovative policies.

“There is huge potential in us as a people – every one of our ancestors took a risk of some sort to get here and felt a great sense of care and community at one time or another, so that is a shared value we can start with,” she says. “However, it takes results to build confidence also, so we need to find better ways to show the positive results of innovative policies that we try.”

“You can't just talk about ‘what works’ for big-picture, new ideas without having agreed on the things that matter, like really matter to us as people, first,” she says. “We simply don't have that language at the moment in Government and across society. It is starting to creep back specifically in how the Prime Minister talks e.g. ‘manaakitanga, kindness.’”

Last year, Berentson-Shaw wrote a column for The Spinoff about the New Zealand Government needing a department called ‘Does it fucking work?’ where new policy ideas would be run as experiments and legislation would be checked via a 50 and 100-year impact on citizens and the environment.

While the name was tongue-in-cheek, she says this is truly what the country needs: to get better at testing public policy with the people that public policy is designed for. Of course, numbers can be used selectively to match a specific narrative. And you can often see that playing out in the confrontational parliamentary environment. But she says one way to do this is trial or experiment with policy within a smaller community, such as social investment.

“The Southern Initiative is one small example of the type of innovation going on at community level that would benefit from all the competencies of those in government to help them show impact in new and exciting ways,” she says.

More broadly, she says if New Zealand really wants to be ambitious in its policy making, there needs to be a total restructuring of how the Government is actually run.

“If we want to move past the three-year cycles, we need to seriously explore ideas like deliberative democracy ­– small-scale, representative discussions with expert input into policy decisions, and perhaps what we always intended select committees to be, but they got lost in the politics – delivering policy through a Māori lens of wellbeing and the world, getting rid of topic-specific departments all together in government and instead building policy delivery around shared values and long-term outcomes we want to achieve,” she says.

“This last one in particular would show that we recognise that we are all part of a system and it is how systems interact that have the largest impact on people and environmental wellbeing.”

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If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Before delving into the parts of New Zealand policy where there’s room for improvement, it’s important to note that it isn’t all bad.

New Zealand score 9th out of 129 countries in the 2017 Social Progress Index, ranking highly in the Opportunity category, which includes personal rights such as freedom of speech, tolerance and inclusion for immigrants and homosexuals and personal freedom and choice over religion and marriage.

Crampton also sings the praises of the country’s economic strengths, such as the tax system and the ease of starting a company (we rank number one in The World Bank’s Ease Of Doing Business Index).

“We have the world’s best tax system. It is clean, has few exemptions, provides few incentives to distort behaviour to avoid tax, and is able to raise a lot of revenue at relatively low tax rates as consequence. We would destroy that if we started doing things like exempting particular politically attractive things from GST, for example.”

There’s also the Government’s moves to look beyond money-making as a measure of success and put the spotlight on social and environmental wellbeing. In February, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden announced the idea of the “wellbeing budget”, where a tool and framework would be introduced to measure the country’s success in social, cultural and environmental terms, alongside its economic success in GDP.

“It will no longer be good enough to say a policy is successful because it increases GDP if, at the same time, it also degrades the physical environment, or drives down wages or fractures a community,” Arden said.

Dr Pride says this is a step in the right direction, and brings policy more in line with what the OECD and the International Monetary Fund have been urging countries to do.

“What we saw over the industrial era is economics has been given primacy over other lenses – over environmental lens, social wellbeing lens,” she says. “To rebalance, we’re going to have look through other lenses, so wellbeing will be a part of that. [The wellbeing budget] is a good sign, yes, but I think we can do some deeper thinking about what lenses do we need to look through for the next era and therefore what to measure, and it comes down a question of values.”

These values include the social, environmental and intellectual categories, but she says this could be distilled further into more specific outcomes, like inter-relational skills in a time of technology and automation.

Berentson-Shaw says the discussions about reframing the country’s economic measures are heartening, but she would like to see more diversity in who’s making these decisions.

“I would like to see some signals that more innovative thinking is being welcomed and people who present a different lens on the world are leading the conversations, not just being sent an invite. For example, what would real trust in Māori look like when we construct a new economic wellbeing measure? Māori business models can be very disruptive – in a positive way ­– compared to neo-classical, western models of business. What policy could we enact to embrace such models across the country?”

Among the areas where policy needs to change, Crampton and Berentson-Shaw agree it’s crucial that New Zealand implements some innovative policies around housing.

“The current crisis has been a long time in the making and reflects fundamental problems in how we fund infrastructure, the incentives facing local government, and processes under the Resource Management Act,” Crampton says.

“The consequences are severe and are felt most harshly by those who are worst off to start with. This has to be fixed. It has to be fixed so the misery caused by overcrowding and poor housing can be abated. It has to be fixed so that kids coming through aren’t locked out of the housing market. And it has to be fixed so that the pressures caused by terrible housing policy do not flow through into bad policies addressing symptoms of the problem rather than the root cause. Fortunately, Phil Twyford gets the underlying regulatory problems, and I’m hopeful that the current government will be fixing this.”

Another area Crampton says needs a closer look is marijuana prohibition. It’s “embarrassing” how far behind America and Canada New Zealand has fallen, he says. A medical cannabis bill put forward by Green MP Chloe Swarbrick in January failed at its first reading in Government, with 47 votes for and 73 votes against. But change looks set to occur soon in some form as attitudes towards the drug shift (we are, after all, seventh on the list of per capita marijuana consumption) and we learn from countries and states that have changed their policies.  

On the education front, business leaders such as Vend and OMG!Tech founder Vaughan Rowsell and The Mind Lab founder Frances Valintine have emphasised the importance of equipping the next generation with skills to face an uncertain world.

AUT design professor and former teacher Dr Welby Ings is an outspoken critic of the current education system’s model. He says while New Zealand once broke away from the British and started designing a system from the ground up, Kiwis have stopped being innovative.

“If you go back to when New Zealand led the world in education in the 1940s – when the world was coming here to understand what on earth was going on ­– it was so socially focused, and so focused on the fact that children were unique and they learned in unique ways. We weren’t world-class, we were world-leading. The world does not flock to our door to see what we’re doing now. Instead, they go to Finland.”

He says when national education standards were introduced, the focus centred on delivering outcomes, rather than placing the child’s needs at the centre of education.

“The early thinkers did something we need to do now, desperately. Not look at what other people are doing overseas and cut-and-paste, but actually look at the unique nature of New Zealand culture and grow from there. It takes a unique level of bravery.”

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Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

With the large assortment of issues to tackle, coming up with policy from scratch can be a daunting task. So, despite what Prof. Ings believes, should New Zealand be casting its eyes around the globe for inspiration? After all, there’s no shortage of impressive policies other countries have come up with (see sidebar for some of our favourite examples).

Crampton says if somewhere else in the world comes up with a better way of handling a problem, it’s worth thinking about whether it would work here.

“But that’s different than trying to engineer New Zealand into adopting some other country’s culture,” he says. “Leaving aside culture and just thinking about policy, you always have to think through whether a policy that has been successful elsewhere would also work here, or whether cultural preconditions are different.”

He says an example of this is Singapore, which has a high-quality public and private healthcare system that delivers on outcomes with a small amount of expenditure (it ranked second in Bloomberg’s index of the world’s most efficient healthcare systems in 2017, just behind Hong Kong). However, Crampton says it relies on background cultural norms around family support that might make it harder to implement in New Zealand.

This is line with the thinking of Katherine Daniell, a researcher at The Australian National University. Upon studying public policy, she found when policy ideas developed and implemented in one country are transferred to another, the Government often fails to factor in the socio-political, economic, geographical and cultural differences between different nations.

“A better understanding of national culture and differences between national cultures could thus inform international policy transfer practices and joint policy learning exercises,” she said.

Berentson-Shaw says the cycling culture and transport infrastructure in Northern European countries, such as Holland, is something New Zealand as a nation should be aiming for, while Finland’s trial to make its government more innovative and transparent is one to be admired.

Iceland also has some exciting equity policies to look at, she says. As of this year, companies there are required to demonstrate that they pay female and male employees fairly to eliminate gender discrimination.

“Having said that, we have a diverse and exciting mix of cultures and views on the world within New Zealand, and we should trust that different people, including those in Government, will bring innovation, but also lived experience from New Zealand, into the mix.”

Dr Pride says Wales’ Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, which requires public bodies such as local authorities and health boards to put long-term sustainability at the forefront of their thinking, is great way to combat ‘short-termism’ that tends to crop up in government bodies.

New Zealand’s government could take inspiration from iwi in this regard, she says.

“I know some of them have done 100-year plans and if you look back at the Te Reo movement, they started in the ‘70s with that and it had a really long-term vision about supporting the language. Because of their culture and their looking back to the ancestors, they think about longer time frames. There’s a lot non-Māori can learn from Māori.”

But Dr Pride says perhaps one area where New Zealand doesn’t want to emulate other countries around the world is civil discourse. In places like the United Kingdom and the United States, she says discussions over policy and government decisions are becoming polarised and hard-line approaches are rising.

Brexit and the Trump election were key moments of nations becoming divided in national conversation, she says, while New Zealand is still able to have a healthy debate around prickly issues.

“As a country, we’ve got a huge opportunity to use the future to maintain our capacity to have civilised discussions and confront the issues with this,” she says.

Dr Pride says initiatives such as Nigel Latta and John Campbell’s What Next? TV series exploring what New Zealand’s future could like helped further these conversations, but there has to be more of a sustained approach. 

“That’s why I’m talking about equipping young people with the capacity to think about the future, it’s as valuable as learning algebra and Mandarin.”

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A coming of age

In an international study led by two researchers from the US Institutes of Health, Robert McCrae and Antonio Terracciano in 2006, 50 nations were compared on the “Big Five” personality test, with teams at Otago and Victoria University carrying out the New Zealand surveys. The results showed that while many countries struggled to self-assess themselves, Kiwis were unusual in the way they could accurately identify their own personality traits: fairly agreeable, averagely neurotic, and not all that conscientious.

Perhaps we do have a formed, cohesive national identity – it’s just our confidence is lacking.

Auckland University recently set up a 20-year New Zealand Attitudes and Values study to continue this line of thinking and track how our national mindset is changing. Study co-leader Danny Osborne says so far, early evidence suggests Kiwis are becoming less racist, less sexist, more serious about environmental issues and more eager to express a link to our ‘Māori-ness’ rather than the once-dominant British narrative. 

In other words, New Zealand as a nation is more agreeable to a redesign of society than ever before – but whether or not a radical change in policies will take place is still up for debate. The status quo is always a powerful force.

When asked to predict a best and worst-case scenario for Aotearoa in 50 years, Crampton says worst-case is that the recent clampdown on immigration and foreign investment marks an inward-looking turn towards more nativist policies and trade restrictions.

Best case, the rest of the world is adopting policy innovations that New Zealand pioneered, and the country keeps moving forward with greater policy design and evaluation.

“New Zealand strengthens its commitment to rigorous policy evaluation under the Investment Approach and harnesses civil society to help in achieving better outcomes,” Crampton says. “Auckland continues to grow, with better zoning rules allowing more people to live there without ruining affordability, and we remain open to new migrants with new ideas.”

Berentson-Shaw says if housing is still an issue by that time, then we’re doomed, but in a best-case scenario, the potential for New Zealand to grow is endless.

“I find it hard to imagine what it would look like because we would be so very different from what we are now, we simply don't have the language yet to describe what is possible if we really let rip,” she says.

Dr Pride says best-case scenario, the New Zealand population has a high futures literacy and the capacity to anticipate and shape the best future it can in terms of challenges and opportunities it saw coming from a long way out. But however New Zealand fares in its policy making – be it bold or conservative, best or worst-case scenario – one thing is certain for the next century.

“The next few decades are going to be quite a turbulent place.” 

While some experts don’t believe policies can be exported, we’ve looked around the world for inspiration.

1. Recreational fun and zero waste

As part of the Copenhagen’s effort to become the first city in the world to go zero-carbon by 2025, a fossil-fuel free energy incineration plant scheduled for opening in 2020 will also boast an artificial ski slope that runs down its wedge-shaped roof. Imagine that in Huntly.

2. More money for start-ups

Countries such as Australia offer tax incentives for investors, who can receive a 20 percent non-refundable carry forward tax offset on investment (capped at $200,000). More than 3000 investors poured over $300 million into start-ups in the 2016-17 financial year.

3. No war on drugs

Since Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2001 and invested much more money into treating addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal matter, it has seen a dramatic drop in overdoses, HIV infection and drug-related crime.

4. Happiness first

Bhutan has a ‘Gross National Happiness’ Index alongside its GDP and has treated social wellbeing as important as economic wellbeing since as far back as 1972.

5. Opt out, not in

In Austria, organ donations by citizens is assumed unless they opt out, which has increased the rates of donations to 99 percent.

6. Stay-at-home dads

Parents in Sweden are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave when a child is born, with fathers required to take at least 90 of those days.

7. No emails after five

In France, the ‘right to disconnect law’ requires companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when staff shouldn’t send or check their emails.

8. Read all about it

In Dubai, public prosecution staff have been allocated one hour a day for a week to read more in their local library, while an initiative has kicked off to provide school libraries with one million books.

9. E-governance

Estonia proudly declares itself the only country where 99 percent of public services are available online, including i-Voting, which allows voters to safely cast their ballots from a computer anywhere in the world.

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