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Kiwi bureaucrat says results of youth scheme show it's worth turning privacy on its head

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Edward Snowden's revelations about government snooping mean it is very hard to make a case for governments collecting and using information about their citizens.

But in New Zealand, giving one agency the right to use more information has quickly paid off, saving millions in the short term, billions in the future and reducing the likelihood that vulnerable young people will spend their lives dependent on the state.

The agency in question is New Zealand's Ministry of Social Development (MSD), whose deputy chief executive Marc Warner spoke at the SAS Forum in Sydney today and explained how each year around 15,000 young Kiwis come close to entering the income support benefits system MSD operates. New Zealand's tax base isn't huge: the government collects about $NZ55bn a year and spend about 40 per cent of that on benefits payments. If that percentage rises, it leaves less in the kitty for more important initiatives.

MSD's analysis of its own data suggests that once someone becomes dependent on benefits, there's every chance they'll stay that way for years. And once someone's on benefits, the chances their future kids also eventually become welfare-dependent rises. Warner said MSD knows the lifetime cost of people already on its books is $78bn, a huge liability that New Zealand wants to address.

The nation's approach to keeping youth out of the benefits system was to change legislation so that MSD could access more data, including academic achievements, truancy records and benefits paid to family members. With that data in hand, the country was able to identify at-risk youth and target them with programs designed to ensure they receive extra education, assistance finding work or other measures that will lead them to become productive members of society instead of a long-term cost or “clients” of the justice system.

A pilot commenced in 2012 has produced good results, with 7,500 youth signing up to have their rent and power bills paid. Participants also receive a payment card for basic living expenses. Case managers work with targeted youth to help them along.

The pilot has already seen a ten to fifteen per cent improvement in outcomes for youth, with more studying or finding work. Similar programs are now targeting other classes of benefits recipients in what Warner called “an investment approach.”

“If we spend $20k on someone with low level health issues and get it sorted, their lifetime cost falls because they will not come near the benefits system again”. The youth intervention program is an example of another style of investment.

Warner's personal view is that such outcomes are easier to achieve if governments have permission to share data among agencies. His view is that citizens should have the right to opt out, but that the societal benefits of data sharing among government agencies are too valuable to dismiss.

That position recognises the “what could possibly go wrong with that?” problems data sharing creates: Warner said MSD faces “a huge challenge to show we are going to use data to achieve better outcomes” and acknowledged 'it is incumbent on government agencies to show the data is safe, secure and is being looked after.”

Warner said pilots like the one aimed at youth are possible in New Zealand's current political climate and because MSD has 20 years of data to inform its plans and the analytics tools to put that data to work.

Most nations possess the latter two assets. The first may be in short supply in a post-Snowden world. ®

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