Valuing Pacific to Build a Stronger Aotearoa Public Service

Romeo Tevaga explores what is holding the public service back from having better representation of Pacific staff, and he explores the unique benefits that Pacific staff bring to organisations.

In 2020, Pacific peoples comprised 9.7 percent of staff in the public service. This seems very good representation when the Pacific population in Aotearoa is 8.1 percent. However, there’s more to the picture. Te Kawa Mataaho pay data shows that Pacific staff are the lowest paid ethnic group. Pacific staff are well-represented as inspectors and regulatory officers; as social, health, and education workers; and as contact centre workers. But Pacific staff are under-represented in the top three tiers of management, and fewer than 3 percent of chief executives are Pacific.

This represents an ongoing challenge for the public service, but there are some signs the challenges are being taken up. As a Pacific public servant working in the policy space, a lot has happened. Five years ago, there were around 50 Pacific policy analysts. Now that has more than doubled. Intentional and targeted interventions such as internships play a significant role in this increase. However, the numbers are still small compared with other ethnic groups.

Understanding Pacific peoples and the value they bring to the public service

Pacific peoples bring special skills to public sector roles.

Strong interpersonal skills and a collective mindset that can help build a better working culture

Building and maintaining relationships are a central way of being for Pacific peoples. In many Pacific cultures, we have the concept of the vā. This is the “space in-between” that builds and links things, people, and worlds and is built and maintained through reciprocity of respect, kindness, and service. Every time I pass in front of someone, I slightly lower my head and shoulders and excuse myself as I walk past. When I talk to someone who is seated, I find the nearest chair and ensure we are speaking at equal eye level so as to not show I am above the person. If I give feedback or express critique, it is through respectful and kind language so as not to diminish the person’s mana. The vā helps centre my relationships. When the vā weakens, I strengthen it through humility and hold myself accountable where I admit my shortcomings. These values are what keep connections with families and communities close and alive. This is how Pacific peoples build strong relationships with others and how they can influence a better work environment.

Cultural intelligence and competence to connect different worlds

Pacific peoples occupy and walk in many worlds and contexts. For example, Pālagi people (Europeans) tend to speak up and write formal complaints if they’re upset with a service. Pacific peoples are more likely to persevere if something isn’t up to standard as they accept that the system can only do so much. Demanding more may take away from others. This is where there is misalignment of cultural perspectives and expectations. Pacific professionals in the public service can mediate, reconcile, and speak the language of the two worlds to translate what the other needs and come from a connected perspective when delivering for the community.

Capability to lead and guide the relationship with Te Tiriti iwi partners

Pacific peoples are people of the ocean (Tangata o te Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa) and, some say, tuākana or older siblings of Māori who are the people of the land (Tangata Whenua). The connections between the two peoples are mostly accepted. When applying this to Te Tiriti contexts, the place of Pacific peoples is complex and uncertain as the whanaunga (relations) with Māori pre-dates the Crown’s relationship. Culturally, linguistically, and socially, Pacific peoples are better placed to understand the holistic and interconnectedness of tikanga and te ao Māori, making it easier to connect than for those from other cultures. Pacific peoples may find themselves able to confidently act as the bridge between the Tiriti partners to develop an open, mutually respectful relationship that will allow for a sustainable and enduring Tiriti relationship. I often found that I was in a better position to advocate and encourage non-Māori colleagues to assess their relationships with Māori and build their capability in te reo and tikanga.

What is holding the public service back in building Pacific capability and capacity?

Lack of commitment by leadership in valuing the need for Pacific skills and worldview

Making space for Pacific representation takes time and deliberate effort. Even one manager advocating and believing in Pacific talent can open doors. Pacific participation will never improve unless leadership confronts issues such as systemic bias and the impacts it has on valuing what Pacific peoples offer.

Rigid and individual-based models of recruitment

Interviews are intimidating for anyone. This is particularly an issue for Pacific candidates who are respectful and humble about their abilities and achievements. Perhaps adopting a model like talanoa (free, informal conversation) is a way to build trust and the vā so that it feels comfortable for the candidate to share their thoughts and abilities. The competencies that agencies look for should be critically evaluated to recognise other strengths a candidate can bring. These can include the candidate’s ability to demonstrate their cultural perceptiveness and ability to see issues from their own cultural and Te Tiriti lens. It also requires managers who are willing to accept that work can be collectively driven rather than individually led and can see humility as a strength.

Agencies need to ask how much experience, skills, and technical competency weigh against cultural perspectives and capability, which we all know is sorely missing. Many candidates would say that developing the hard skills to do the job can be learnt, but the perspectives from someone’s culture has to be lived and cannot be taught. I would also argue that there is not a lack of talent among Pacific peoples. There are a lot of able Pacific graduates who aren’t landing jobs because they don’t have relevant work experience and they don’t perform well in a rigid and competitive selection process. Something has to give in the way we do recruitment.

Biases and generalisations about Pacific peoples

There is a lack of nuance in understanding Pacific peoples. The term “Pacific” is a catch-all descriptor of diverse Pacific ethnic groups. All ethnic groups are different in their identities, languages, and cultures. Three in five Pacific peoples are New Zealand born, and of the 90 percent of Pacific migrants living in New Zealand for more than five years, over half have been here for 20 or more years. Pacific peoples have been a mainstay population of New Zealand since the 1950s, but the public service’s understanding of the community has changed very little. Until Pacific peoples’ citizenship and rights as New Zealanders are acknowledged, the challenge of addressing Pacific peoples’ issues will persist. There are no better advocates to remind everyone of this than Pacific peoples in the public service.

Lack of accessibility to opportunities

A majority of Pacific peoples live in Auckland. Moving to Wellington would be a big step for many, especially if their family and community networks are in Auckland. Opening up opportunities outside Wellington could definitely get more Pacific peoples into policy, for example. We have the technology and the resources to support people travelling and staying for bits at a time in Wellington, so having flexible and multi-location arrangements could be the way forward.

Inability to offer and cater for a culturally safe space

It is difficult for those who haven’t experienced being one of a handful, or the only one, of a distinct group to understand the issues others face. Agencies must make the effort to respond to the challenges minority groups experience in spaces that lack diversity and a friendly work culture. For Pacific peoples, the key is to remember that relationships matter. Their safety and confidence is co-dependent on the level of trust and interest you invest in them. Talanoa can help navigate Pacific staff’s levels of comfort, especially when managing what they feel confident expressing views on and what the agency wants to consult on and learn about. Understanding how taxing and lonely it can be to carry the Pacific community voice reinforces the importance of being an ally so that Pacific staff do not have to persevere alone. Agencies’ support for Pacific staff networks to operate with regular fono, and embracing Pacific cultures in the workplace, can make all the difference.

Tides of change

There is hope that the representation of Pacific peoples at all levels of the public service will increase as the tides of changes are starting to show. At one time, it would have been unimaginable to have 10 Pacific MPs, with three in Cabinet. However, there is much to do, especially in getting more Pacific leadership and to bring Pacific thinking into the public sector so we truly have an all-of-Aotearoa approach to service. Like many Pacific peoples who are “inside”, I took my place in the public service to ensure Pacific peoples are counted because decisions made by the government matter for our communities.