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Home » Discussion: A BLUEPRINT FOR A BRIGHT FUTURE ?

Discussion: A BLUEPRINT FOR A BRIGHT FUTURE?

The Ministry of Research, Science & Technology recently published Blueprint for Change: Government's policies and procedures for its research, science and technology investments. This document is a formal statement of the Government's science policy. Ian Reilly has prepared the following review (first published in the New Zealand Geophysical Society Newsletter 54: 10&endash;14, November 1999), and it is reproduced here to spark discussion on the value and importance of this document. Quotations taken from the document are shown in italics

It must be a mark of your correspondent's longevity that he can remember what a real blueprint looked like. It was a drawing copied by a process that yielded white lines on a blue ground. Its function was to serve as an accurate and dimensioned plan from which to construct a building, or a piece of machinery or the like. It was drawn precisely to scale, so that the builder could determine graphically any length whatever in the plane of the drawing, in addition to having important dimensions labelled numerically.

The best of blueprints were characterised by clarity and precision. From them a skilled tradesman could produce an object that conformed to the designer's specifications. Could, that is, if the design were sound, and worked in the round as well as it looked in plan view. Whether or not the object was fit for its purpose was the responsibility of the designer.

So how does the government's Blueprint for Change measure up?

Firstly, while it is full of goals, outcomes, and expectations, it contains no objectives. An objective is a result that is tangible - you will know when you have achieved it. A true blueprint is the embodiment of an objective: if it is for a house, you will most definitely know when the object is achieved, and you can move in, and the lights switch on, hot water comes out of the hot water tap, cold from the cold, and the bath-water goes down the plug-hole and doesn't reappear as a puddle on the lawn.

The Blueprint for Change is not a blueprint by this definition, though one could be misled by the statement in the Introduction that

"…this blueprint identifies what Government seeks to achieve through its investment, rather than how much it proposes to spend.

The overall goal of the investment is to develop a knowledge society, characterised by knowledge-led innovation???/I>

This blueprint…provides the blueprint for a framework designed to ensure that Government's investment in RS&T is directed toward stimulating the development of a knowledge society in New Zealand."

So it's a blueprint for a framework, which

"consists of :

1. A set of goals to set the key directions for investment decisions across the science envelope???/I>

2. A set of target outcomes, based on sector-identified innovation needs???/I>

3. A performance measuring system, linking RS&T investments to the science envelope goals???

the relationships between which are pictured in the flow-chart of Fig. 1, all of which leaves this reviewer, a holdover from the ignorance society, as confused as ever.

The minister sets the scene???/B>

In his Foreword, RS&T Minister Maurice Williamson seeks to clarify the issues by dwelling on the

"Foresight Project…simply a way of thinking about the future…constructing a vision of a desirable future, and then identifying strategies to take you there."

Mr Williamson makes us further aware of the importance of this document by the statement on the Contents page that

"This document, especially Section 3(C), serves as written notice of the Government's priorities for the purchase of public good science and technology (PGST) outputs under section 7(1) of the Foundation for Research Science and Technology Act 1990???

So there, we had better all sit up and take notice, and add the term output to our basket of goals, outcomes and expectations. But no! - we have yet to learn that the

"…science envelope…comprises all of Vote RS&T, the research component of funding for tertiary institutes in Vote Education, and government departments' investments in operational research???

for by the time we reach the all-important Section 3, our goals have become science envelope goals. We survivors of the ignorance society will have to update our metaphors from a "purse of doubloons" or a "bag of sovereigns", though Minister Williamson might have conjured up something more electronic than science envelope with its connotation of a wad of well-wrapped Rutherfords being slipped under the table in some clandestine transaction.

The goals

At last we come to the four science envelope goals on p. 9, and in Table 1 on p. 11:

1. Innovation goal: Accelerate knowledge creation and the development of human capital, social capital, learning systems and networks in order to enhance New Zealand's capacity to innovate???/I>

2. Economic goal: Increase the contribution knowledge makes to the creation and value of new and improved products, processes, systems and services in order to enhance the competitiveness of New Zealand enterprises???/I>

3. Environmental goal: Increase knowledge of the environment and of the biological, physical, social, economic and cultural factors that affect it in order to establish and maintain a healthy environment that sustains nature and people???/I>

4. Social goal: Increase knowledge of the social, biological, environmental, cultural, economic and physical determinants of well-being in order to build a society in which all New Zealanders enjoy health and independence and have a sense of belonging, identity and partnership???/I>

Whew! I don't think you'll find it better put in all the collected works of J. V. Stalin! But let us press on, for we come to the target outcomes which

"…enrich the interpretation of the four science envelope goals. Each target outcome gives part of a vision of what New Zealand's future society could be like???

First, a digression on the word outcome, which the Concise Oxford defines succinctly as "Result, visible effect". An outcome is what happens, not necessarily what someone intends to happen. Even if an objective is achieved, the outcome may not be the desired one. Politicians like to be seen to produce (favourable) outcomes, but often run for cover when the outcomes turn out badly, even when these flow from policies that have been consciously pursued and successfully achieved. For example, fifteen years of not ineffective government policy have seen the New Zealand economy slide steadily down the OECD league tables, while the highest income quintile of the population has become decidedly richer, and the lowest quintile decidedly poorer. The National Party lauds this as an achievement of the Enterprise Society, while the Labour Party seeks to deny its role in this - or is it the other way around - or does it all depend on the audience?

The outcomes

The Blueprint for Change has fourteen target outcomes, the qualifier implying that the outcomes are intended. The number is interesting: it has been remarked that God made do with Ten Tables of the Law, but US President Woodrow Wilson needed Fourteen Points. Minister Maurice Williamson has not only emulated Wilson, but has doubled him, hanging a further fourteen impact expectations "beneath the science envelope goal statements" (here the metaphors are starting to get as convoluted as anything out of the Kama Sutra).

Let's start with a few target outcomes

  • People with knowledge, skills and ideas
  • Maori development
  • Health for all
  • New Zealand in the global biophysical environment

These are target outcomes? "New Zealand in the global biophysical environment" is a target outcome? What on earth does it mean?

Logic crumbles. The English language reels under the relentless assault.

Performance measurement???/B>

But more is to come, for we have arrived at the crux, the kernel, the critical core - Section 3(C) Performance Measurement System - Minister Williamson's "written notice of the Government's priorities>???

"The performance measurement system increases the information to guide public investment in RS&T by providing a framework to report achievements…to Government…RS&T performance expectations…have been expanded into a set of 14 impact expectations which form the basis of the performance measures linking the science envelope goals to the target outcomes???

…you're sure you're following all this? You realise that, despite there being 14 impact expectations linked to 14 target outcomes, there is no one-to-one correspondence between these sets, just a fortuitous identity in number? But we can't afford to stop for a cup of tea now, but must hasten towards the climax, which deserves to be quoted in extenso???/P>

"The set of 14 impact expectations…set the context for MoRST, on behalf of the Minister, to negotiate a set of expectations and indicators with purchase agents, and in turn for these organisations to do the same with science providers.

The proposed performance measurement system will improve the strategic focus of Government's RS&T investment by improving alignments of accountabilities from the Government's goals and priorities down to RS&T activities within contracts. The performance measurement system will also provide an integrated, upwards stream of information on RS&T achievements???

Anyone who has ever suffered from a misaligned accountability, particularly in a downward direction, will sympathise…but, onward!

"Performance measurement modules reflect the achievement of expectations at different levels of the investment framework. These measures will include qualitative and quantitative performance indicators…[which]…will be developed as existing work is realigned under the new target outcome framework."

You must obviously pay careful attention to the alignment of the performance measurement module under the target outcome framework within the correct level of the investment framework, for which we have the blueprint…but I digress, for we have reached the very acme of the argument!

"The 14 impact expectations kickstart the top performance measurement module"

In the final paroxysm, the metaphor of metaphors, we leap aboard our Harley-Davidson and roar off into the global biophysical environment of the knowledge society!

It's all downhill from here on. If you can't wait for the movie, then you'll just have to plough your way through the remaining fifteen pages by yourselves.

Epilogue???/B>

There is a class of literary compositions that are impossible to parody. The prime example is the television advertisement. Let us denote the class by P. A useful, if perhaps not completely rigorous, recursive definition of P is as follows:

If and only if a literary composition X is a member of P, and if Y is any parody of X, then Y is also a member of P.

The Blueprint for Change is indubitably a member of the class P.

Who writes this garbage?

From internal evidence, one might suspect the duller graduates of some university department of sociology. They may even - Heaven forbid - be the brighter graduates. What is certain, is that no literate scientist with any regard for logic or language has revised, edited or approved the Blueprint for Change.

It is a disgrace to the Minister of Research, Science & Technology the Hon. Maurice Williamson. One wonders if his predecessor in that office, the Hon. Simon Upton, whose scrupulous use of language is well known, will be restrained from expressing his opinion of its value more by considerations of Cabinet propriety than by any sense of shared responsibility?

There are three possible explanations for the Minister's behaviour:

  1. he doesn't realise that the Blueprint is an inexcusably shoddy document;
  2. he knows it, but doesn't care;
  3. he knows it, but decides to press on, as he has more important things to do than engage his Ministry in a time-wasting argument.

The last is the most charitable interpretation.

The Blueprint is a disgrace to the Ministry of Research, Science & Technology. The Ministry arose from the science policy/funder/provider split instituted by the Lange-Douglas-Palmer government of 1984-90, and enthusiastically supported by the present Bolger-Shipley administration. Its primary function is to provide the Government with policy advice. If the Blueprint for Change is the best that it can produce at the end of two years of consultation and the expenditure of millions of dollars, then the Government should abolish MoRST and begin again. Its continued existence tarnishes the reputation of New Zealand science.

Horace can have the last word:

Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus.
(Mountains will go into labour, and a silly little mouse will be born)