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Insights 33: 1 September 2017
Manifesto 2017: What the next New Zealand government should do
Public Meetings Future of Recreational Fishing
Jenesa Jeram: National is literally paying people to make babies

Acta non verba*
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
Quidquid agis prudenter agas et respice finem. Whatever you do, do it wisely and consider the end, a famous Latin proverb reminds us.

If only National had more Latin lovers in their ranks (apart from Christopher Finlayson), it could have saved them from last weekend’s education blunder.

At their official campaign launch, National promised every schoolchild a foreign language. It sounded too good to be true – and it was.

On Monday, the Party had to admit that there was only enough funding to pay for one hour of language instruction for 30 weeks of the year.

The announcement was a case of multum clamoris, parum lanae (much clamour, little wool).

What I find disappointing about National’s announcement is that it turns language teaching into an election gimmick. It should not be.

Few things you learn at school are as valuable as language lessons. You will probably forget the binomial theorem, the causes of the Punic Wars and the functions of mitochondria.

But a language learnt will be something that stays with you for the rest of your life. Even if you do not speak it often, it will remain with you. It will have broadened your horizon – and it will have taught you the joys and pains of learning: Ex nihilo nihil fit – nothing comes from nothing.

But you must learn languages properly. And from personal experience I can tell you that if it is just an hour of learning a week, you might as well not bother.

In my own case, I ‘enjoyed’ four weekly hours of Latin for 5½ years from year 5. I then learnt English from year 7, first for four hours a week for four years and then for six hours a week for another two years. I learnt some rudimentary French for just 1½ years of three hours a week, and later taught myself some Italian.

The only thing I regret about my school time is that I did not learn more languages. Unfortunately, I could not continue my French and I did not opt to learn Spanish.

Research shows that children learning languages do better in other subjects. There is some magic happening in children’s brains when they are exposed to foreign sounding phrases.

So by all means, let’s increase our schools’ language teaching capacity. But let’s do it properly.

After all, scientia potentia est. Knowledge is power.

* Action not words

What is wrong with our regulatory institutions?
Roger Partridge | Chairman |
To get the right answers you have to ask the right questions. If you do not, chances are you will not discover everything you need to know.

This precisely captures a problem with the terms of reference set for the Productivity Commission’s review of New Zealand’s regulatory regimes and regulatory institutions in 2014.

The resulting report identified a litany of problems with our regulators. Some, it said, placed significant weight on managing risks to the organisation at the expense of efficiently managing social harm.

Others had poor internal communication, with employees feeling unable to challenge flawed practices. contributing to a perception that the regulators were unwilling to learn from their past mistakes.

More generally the Commission found that regulatory workers in central government did not perceive that senior managers communicated a clear organisational mission.
Sound familiar? If it does, you might be tempted to treat the report like a crossword and try to fill in the names of the regulators against the clues given in the criticism. Unfortunately, attempting to do this would be futile. For many of the clues there is more than one right answer.

Yet the Commission’s report itself contains no “official” answers – neither in the text nor cleverly concealed upside-down on the last page.

This is because the Commission was not asked to review individual regulators. Instead it was tasked with identiying system-wide improvements. So its report left only cryptic clues to the failings of individual regulators.

There is nevertheless much of value in the Commission’s report. And some of its recommendations have been implemented by government.

But the report only goes so far. While it concluded that the various governance arrangements in our regulators appeared ad hoc rather than based on sound governance principles, it did not say which regulators had the wrong governance arrangements, and what changes were necessary.

And though it found the appointment and reappointment processes for regulators were of variable quality, it did not comment on which were good and which were bad.

The shortcomings of the report reflect no failing on the part of the Commission. It can only answer the questions it is asked. But its report raises as many questions as it answers.

Over the coming months, the Initiative will be doing its best to fill the gaps. Do not hesitate to contact us if you have the answer to a piece of the puzzle.

Destroying the bicycle books
Eric Crampton | Chief Economist |
The thing I miss least about being in academia is the administration.

I don’t mean faculty governance – it is important that academics be involved in that lest everything be taken over by the administrators. If the academics did not make sure that new programme offerings maintained academic rigour and provided something useful for the students, who would?

But there was a seemingly endless supply of questionnaires, forms, and reporting – and too much of it had no obvious purpose. Junior faculty would take it all seriously, and try to comply; more senior colleagues would report ignoring all administrative emails unless they were pestered to do something at least three times.

And it wasn’t new. One former Head of Department who pre-dated email reported that he had shunted all internal mail into a box and read none of it until someone followed up. Only a tiny percentage wound up mattering.

Why? Most of it was nonsense work – things that were done either because they’d always been done that way, or because someone in one of the administrative offices had dreamed it up, and nobody quite knew why. If something really were important, it would be followed up.

Last week, the Productivity Commission hosted the University of Leicester’s Professor Zoe Radnor, a management expert who focuses on “lean” organisations. She told the story of the bicycle book.

Professor Radnor saw lots of staff at a hospital she was visiting signing into a book early in the morning. It seemed that everyone on the wide hospital campus who bicycled into work made their way to a central office to sign the bicycle book, and none of them knew why.

She found the office where the bicycle books were taken when they filled up. The bicycle books were compiled into larger boxes, and once the boxes were full, they went down into the archives.

And nobody knew the last time anyone had used one for anything.

On further sleuthing, she found that the bicycle books started when the National Health Service started in 1946. Under post-war rationing, those who cycled to work got a larger ration. Nobody got rid of the bicycle books when rationing ended, and for about sixty years people kept signing them.

She urged the audience, mostly bureaucrats, to go and find their bicycle books.

I am very glad to be working in a small, young organisation that does not have any.
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