Governing by Algorithm? Child Protection in Aotearoa New Zealand

Image of blurred out children running around on a lawn

In 2014, the new Minister for Social Development in Aotearoa New Zealand, Anne Tolley, was presented with a briefing paper from the National Children’s Director at the Ministry for Social Development (MSD) titled ‘Vulnerable Children Predictive Modelling: Design for Testing and Trialling.’

The paper included a proposal for a two-year observational study ‘to assess whether children identified by the Predictive Modelling as at high risk of an adverse outcome/s did in fact suffer that outcome’.

Though it was not the MSD’s intent, Tolley viewed the ‘observational study’ along with an additional comment that ‘the PM score would be calculated at birth for a known cohort of children and then these children’s outcomes and service contacts observed’ as MSD suggesting a suspension of child protective services as a means to test the accuracy of the Predictive Risk Model (PRM). Consequently, Tolley called for the PRM’s implementation to stop immediately, after which she released the proposal, along with her annotations, to the media. The resulting coverage sparked debate on the ethics of using the tool and whether it had social license for its implementation.

This case outlines the controversy and the public sector management issues that emerged: including agencies’ capacities; change management requirements; and the timing and form of the required consultative processes both within and outside of government. It also looks at the end result, which was that the algorithm was abandoned and replaced by a shift to multi-agency Social Service Teams made up of officials from the Ministries of Social Development, Education and Justice, to improve the efficacy and efficiency of intervening in families.

Please note this case has a Teaching Note associated with it. To access a copy, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with a request and citing the title.

  • Authors: Rachel Bukowitz and Tim O’Loughlin
  • Published Date: 21 February 2022
  • Author Institution: Carnegie Mellon University
  • Featured Content Length: 9
  • Content Length: 9
  • Product Type: One-part case

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