Dr Liz Gordon: Fixing Work and Income

By   /   May 10, 2018  /   25 Comments

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The organisation widely known as WINZ, but in reality Work and income, has been in the media again. There is widespread acknowledgement, even by the Minister, that Work and Income is not operating as it should, causing distress and lack of entitlements for thousands of people, many of whom are living below the poverty line.

The organisation widely known as WINZ, but in reality Work and income, has been in the media again. There is widespread acknowledgement, even by the Minister, that Work and Income is not operating as it should, causing distress and lack of entitlements for thousands of people, many of whom are living below the poverty line.

Even where the organisation delivers according to its mandate, highly punitive sanctions put in place by successive governments means that some families simply cannot make ends meet at all.  They can’t pay their bills and live. They are driven either to benefit fraud (take in boarders, live in secret with someone, take up a cash job such as prostitution) which can end them up in prison, or to pay day loan people who will exploit them with usurious interest rates.  It is not a happy existence.

If that were all, it would be bad enough.  But my own recent research on Work and Income raises significant questions about the functionality of the system that delivers welfare support to New Zealanders.  The Minister, in bravely acknowledging the problems, notes however that change will take some time – years in fact.

I think my research into grandparents raising grandchildren is the most current research that actually peers into the system to see what’s wrong.  The findings have been published and well read within government agencies. While I agree (a) that attempts to change the culture of the organisation have not had much effect, and (b) that there is a lot to do, I do think some simple steps can make a difference fairly quickly and should be implemented as soon as possible.  

The government should also be encouraged to know that the many errors and mishaps that pepper the system can be stamped out relatively easily, and that this should save a lot of money.  This is because people may get their entitlements first time, to stop the downward slope into poverty.

So what my research found was that the offices were badly designed and not fit for purpose, the experiment of dropping individual case managers in favour of dealing with whoever is there has increased confusion and muddled decision-making, clients get mixed messages and often wrong advice and that many welfare transactions are dogged by judgemental attitudes and a culture of denying entitlement.

Thus what should be a straightforward transaction of assessing and granting income support while steering into a better future is heavily impeded by an inefficient and incompetent system with a heavy dash of stigma and discrimination.

I often quote Peter Marston who wrote, about Australia:

By dropping our research gaze to the street-level of policy implementation we have illustrated how what might seem straight forward and clear at the macro level of analysis quickly becomes murky, contested and ambiguous.

In short, there is a big gap between policy and practice.  In our study, only 15% of grandparents seeking assistance from Work and Income were told about the existence of the Unsupported Child Benefit, a lifeline for families in this situation, on first enquiry. Many took ages to find out about this, largely due to the work of the NGO Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.  Some never found out.

There are a couple of fairly easy fixes to a good proportion of the problems described in the paper.  One, for example, is to display the W and I service charter in every office and encourage people to seek further help if they think the charter has been breached.  The Charter promises prompt and efficient service, assistance provided where required, to be listened to in an understanding and caring way, respectful and friendly services and alternative sources of assistance.

The first fix then is to display the charter prominently and ensure that staff live up to it.  When we did our research we found that the charter was not displayed in any of the local offices around here.

The second is to ensure that an advocate is available to everyone facing difficulties.  Actually, the best way to facilitate good decision-making would be to fund advocacy services in all regions and all offices.  There is no doubt that a knowledgeable advocate leads to good outcomes. I don’t see why Work and Income shouldn’t pay for this service, given it is often their systems or ‘culture’ at fault.

In terms of a long-term outcome, a friend of mine is adamant that what is needed is to once again link the system of income support with the system of social welfare.  In practice this means that social workers (instead of low-paid administrators) would assess and approve benefits, as used to be the case. While largely hidden from public view, a lot of public misery to some of our most vulnerable families is caused by the current system of Work and Income.  At heart, a system that often seems opposed to the wellbeing of people needs to become the frontline agency for ensuring that wellbeing.


Dr Liz Gordon began her working life as a university lecturer at Massey and the Canterbury universities. She spent six years as an Alliance MP, before starting her own research company, Pukeko Research.  Her work is in the fields of justice, law, education and sociology (poverty and inequality). She is the president of Pillars, a charity that works for the children of prisoners, a prison volunteer, and is on the board of several other organisations. Her mission is to see New Zealand freed from the shackles of neo-liberalism before she dies (hopefully well before!).

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  1. Rosemary McDonald says:

    The Charter (who knew to even look for such a thing???? is here


    Great post.

  2. CLEANGREEN says:

    “There is widespread acknowledgement, even by the Minister, that Work and Income is not operating as it should, causing distress and lack of entitlements for thousands of people, many of whom are living below the poverty line.”

    Yes we see an institutional flaw within the WINZ now ever since it was put under the total control of SS Joyce’s ‘mega ‘do everything’ agency MBIE that he controlled so tightly for nine years.

    Part of Steven Joyce’s horrible heartless policies are still lurking inside that evil agency.

    So now WINZ is just “a clearly house” for telling clients ‘they can’t help.’

    Now we need labour/NZF to take WINZ out from SS Joyce’s MBIE ‘super agency’ stable and place WINZ back again as a separate agency dedicated to serve the needs of the NZ people and not the ‘bean counters’.

    • Strypey says:

      You might be thinking of the Department of Labour? WINZ is part of the Ministry of Social Development (or MiniSocDev as Orwell would have nicknamed it), not MBIE. MSD is a super-ministry but from the Clark years, formed by a merger of the Ministry of Social Policy and the Department of Work and Income.

  3. Denny Paoa says:

    Simple fix. Step one;

    1. Sack Brendan Boyle
    2. Put the 7000 staff at MSD/WINZ on notice that they will all have to re-apply for their jobs & give a good reason why they should be offered one
    3. Sack the PSA union because theyre shite!
    4. Repeal all of the 270 pieces of legislation in the Social Securities Act that the last government repealed.
    5. Reduce the number of private sector provider of services and bring all of those services back in-house because the private sector are shite.

    Have this all done by lunchtime Friday, ok! Then I’ll write up stage two.

  4. Michelle says:

    they need to weed out the bad ones in Winz and there will be many. They the Winz workers all of them need to remember without beneficiaries they will not have job. Having a case worker was an excellent system I know I utilised this system. I also got the TIA and went on to get a degree while working part time at the same time. I would like us to invests in our case workers so they are multiple skill they can provide social work and be a work broker at the same time and if they can get people of welfare and into sustainable and secure work pay them a bonus it will be worth every dollar. The best investment we can make is in people not machines or robots people still need people and people deserve to be treated properly with respect and dignity both the case worker and the beneficiary.

  5. Tiger Mountain says:

    well put Liz, it is an uphill struggle with only two MPs–Marama and Carmel, seeming to have clue number one about the reality of Work and Income as more a sadistic punishment maze than delivering “social welfare”

  6. janine says:

    What is most terrible about all of this is it’s not academic it’s real. It is people’s lives being trashed by WINZ purely for the crime of being poor or sick or unemployed.

    A lot of New Zealanders appear to support this horror hopefully through ignorance not sadism – though at times its hard to tell.

    I think of how Metiria was treated when she made a stand about the situation beneficiaries find themselves in.

    The loss of Metiria is what will allow the present government to get away with cosmetic changes to the WINZ outfit rather than a full overhaul and change that will improve the lives of New Zealand’s most vulnerable.

    This is what I will be measuring the current governments performance on.

  7. Work and Income are damaged, but I don’t think they are broken. That is a better description of the legislative framework that the M.S.D. function under.


    I have dealt with them sporadically from 2000-2007; 2011-2013. The gaps in between I had full time work.

    Some of their payments defy logic. See the article whose link is above for more.

  8. Lone comet says:

    This sounds like a good way forward, some people at Work and income go out of their way to humiliate clients and generally make life harder than it already is for those who have to seek help. This is because the onus was to reduce welfare by lowly qualified non case managers, rather than offer assistance, by qualified social welfare operatives. The problem with some case managers, say a little Hitler type, of which there are many in this organisation, could make a clients life hell … So if uou had the bad luck to get a bad one uou were stuck with them. The story of the woman who told her case manager of her tinder dates is a case in point. The case manager should have told her she didn’t need yo supply that information, instead she cut her off.

  9. countryboy says:

    Ah ?
    What’s wrong with doubling WINZ payments, effective from next pay cycle, nailing loan sharks to the muddy bottom they feed off by wiping out societies debts to them then banning them from operating then increasing taxes to the 1%’ers who are, in effect, the real bludgers on NZ/AO to pay for it all?
    How would that take years? That’s bullshit, that’s what that is.
    If there’s tax money for wanky wankers and their wanky boats, if there’s tax money for a flag change, a hobbit movie, to bale out Media Works and to change the face of our currency on a whim and God only knows what else, then how come people in dire straights can’t expect immediate relief from their nightmare lives foisted on them by fat, rich wankers? I mean, call me old fashioned if you must but what, about that, is rocket surgery?
    I can tell you what it is. It’s because they don’t fear us. They please themselves because they can. Its time for that shit to stop. If the Minister of Social Development isn’t running while screaming, we’re not acting responsibly to protect the sanctity of our government and our democracy.

  10. shelzo says:

    So much angst has been caused by some workers, that really they could be sacked. I have never seen a charter in a work and income office, so that may help everyone become more educated about their rights and entitlements. I recently wrote to the new Minister to discuss problems I had encountered, and also asked to be put on working group, as guess what I would like a fair paid job, like most, than dealing with the system. Thanks for your insights Dr Liz G.

  11. theresa says:

    I believe the best is to re advertise jobs at work and income or social welfare and let everyone there re apply. Some of those workers are really in the wrong jobs.
    There are some case workers that are really good and listen to what the person is saying then try their best to assist them, but the majority needs to find other places to go work.
    Just this morning someone was told the appointment made was wrong until the client told her my support worker will be here shortly can you tell her. Needless to say she was asked to wait and when support worker arrives she’ll be seen. the person that saw her was really good and gave what was needed, with the right documents produced for the meeting of course.
    What I am saying is people should be assisted not just because they have a support person there.
    Everyone needs food assistance but everyone has a different reason as to why.

  12. Mark says:

    Just the other day I sent a letter to Disability Issues regarding the lack of help I get. Im physically disabled and after 10 knee operations Im well and truly stuck. Discrimination in the workplace is rife when it comes to disabled people, its illegal to say you didn’t get the job because of a disability so its every other excuse but, the look they give me when I walk into the interview tells a different story however.
    So I’m married and my wife works for a living, and because of that I get no benefit or assistance, in fact because Im not on any support I cant even get help to find a job. Discriminated against by joe public and discriminated against by the govt, this country is the pits

  13. SPC says:

    Given the low government cost of debt, and the much higher cost of finance to the poor – a necessary step to poverty reduction involves refinancing debt (as the money would be laid back to government upon full employment, this would appear in the government books as an asset, much like student loans). And offering affordable finance (cost free until employment).

  14. Marc says:

    MSD and WINZ cannot be fixed, they must be dismantled and abolished and replaced!

    (published 2 April 2018)

    (Published 28.01.2018)

    PDF version of Post:


    “Is the statement that if a person is off work for 70 days the chance of ever getting back to work is 35% justified?”


    New, current PDF version (as on 19.09.16):

    Much more I know of, a recent email received by a friend two days ago said, in all honesty, by one of their servants, that records did not exist on trials they conducted as Mental Health Employment Services. Get this? They deny records exist, where all evidence is there to prove they conducted trials and they failed. They just do not want to front up to the truth.

    MSD and WINZ must be closed down for good and be replaced by a new department that takes the care for the least fortunate seriously, not this fake BS organisation we have, still supported by the present government.

    I despair at people here not getting it, as it seems.

  15. Liz Gordon says:

    Great comments, everyone. There seems to be unity here that change is required and quite possible, but some disagreement on what should happen first. Should we fix the bad system or sort out the payments? I think that both need to happen. I was particularly grateful to be reminded of the old Training Incentive Allowance. So many of my students in the old days were transforming their lives through study. Brig that back pronto! Thanks for finding the charter and providing a link to it! Do read my academic article at this link:
    https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1177083X.2017.1343194. And encourage the government to move forward on this as a priority!

    • Rosemary McDonald says:

      Thank you Liz for this and your other work…these are the stories we need to share.

      I have read your paper, and it comes just a few days after finding and reading this paper…https://www.auckland.ac.nz/en/about/news-events-and-notices/news/news-2018/05/parent-concerns-for-disabled-children-drive-phd.html

      ““When I am no longer alive: Understanding what the parents want for the future of their disabled adult children with high and complex needs”

      “I knew that I was dealing with a very sensitive topic, so was mentally prepared for some emotional responses from the parents. But nothing prepares you for responses such as – ‘I hope that my child dies before me’,” he admits.

      Hemant said that some of the parents he spoke to were completely at the end of their tether and couldn’t bear the thought of leaving their children behind vulnerable to State care. They were the ones who often told him that they would rather see their children “move on in front of their own eyes”.

      His conclusion at the end of the study was that the formal support systems in both New Zealand and India are falling short in providing adequate support for disabled adults.

      “Despite having a reasonably well-established disability support system in New Zealand, it became clear that our system is failing in adequately supporting the adults with high and complex needs and their families,” he says.”

      And yet, the successive governments have poured billions into not only providing supports but working on policies, strategies and action plans in a desperate bid to make better use of resources.

      And failed, miserably.

    • Z says:

      Disabled/infirm need the system build around them and this should be the top priority.

      For many years they have been treated as an adjunct to the system despite many hui, the ODI, CRPD etc.

  16. […] doubt the suggestions in Dr Liz Gordon’s recent blog piece about Work and Income are well-intentioned, and its refreshing to see some ideas for welfare policy based on […]

  17. Matthew howard says:

    I agree that workers at MSD should be encouraged to assist fully those in need but also from painful experience I also know that there is a chaotic underclass that creates a lot of work for all types of services. The poor workers at these services have to deal with these difficult to deal with people everyday and could easily get jaded. If you are going to pressure MSD to get its act together then you should equally pressure this lumpenproletariat to stop being such a drain on our society. That is for them as well to do the job they are being paid for.

  18. Lone comet says:

    Lumpenproletariat… Wtf

  19. Lone comet says:

    And to boot, fuck you running dog

  20. Marc says:

    We can see by how little Labour do in government when dealing with social security legislation, it is just applying a few tweaks to what the Nats brought in over nine years of welfare reforms, with ever increased sanctions and rules for applicants and existing beneficiaries to face and deal with.

    They are now going to send the Social Security Legislation Rewrite Bill through the Committee stages in the House, and Carmel Sepuloni has brought in two new SOPs (Supplementary Order Papers) that keep actual changes to the previous and reported back version to a minimum.

    Now the talk is all about ‘policy neutral’, reversing only a few ‘minor policy’ changes the Nats tried to bring in, and for the most leave the Bill as it was. Labour and NZ First could have used the opportunity to reverse some of the nasty law changes that the Nats made with their lackey support parties, and also dealt to sanctions through the rewrite version.

    But no, now this is intended to come into law just before Christmas this year, so any further social security changes are likely to not be proposed earlier than next year or later.

    The Bill as it was:

    Overview of it all on Legislation NZ website:

    Main SOP 25, downloadable as PDF:

    SOP 26 also relevant now (reversing some proposed law mergers):

    Read through the 500 plus pages and see how little will change, Labour will for now leave all the nasty and hefty sanctions in place that the Nats brought in, will leave in place the Jobseeker benefit, into which the former Sickness Benefit and Unemployment Benefit were merged.

    Much talk and media savvy presentations in Parliament, for the rest, business as usual, under Labour and NZ First, with small and weak Greens in tow.

    With this we get no real improvements, only some humble increases in supplements and some winter payment to help people suffer a little bit less.