Doing Our Best By Pacific Communities

Dr Collin Fonotau Tukuitonga, Associate Dean Pacific and Associate Professor of Public Health at the University of Auckland, reflects on the role of public servants in working with and delivering for Pacific communities.

Focusing on the health sector (what I know best), I have witnessed some great examples of tailoring responses to Pacific communities throughout the COVID-19 response. Of course, there have also been missteps, but where strong relationships have been built or where pre-existing trusted relationships have been drawn on, the community response has been evident.

Thoughtful, consistent engagement builds relationships with communities

The frontline engagement with Pacific communities and their leaders throughout the COVID-19 has been intensive – and often impressive. Public servants and health experts have met regularly with community members, almost on a weekly basis, to convey important information about COVID-19. Pacific public servants have usually played an important role, being able to conduct meetings in the language of the community. There is an element of relationship building to this as well – from a community perspective, it is important that they see the same faces over time. And the importance of bringing messages in a familiar language and cultural context cannot be overstated.

Pacific providers already know their communities

The COVID-19 response has also highlighted some shortcomings. We knew as far back as 1918 that Māori and Pacific communities are most at risk during a pandemic – and most likely to get severely sick. However, in my view, many of the COVID-19 response activities were not well-targeted to our communities.  We saw that a conventional approach – without flexibility or targeting to Pacific communities – won’t work so well. The key for me is engaging with Pacific providers early. They know their communities, and they know what works. It involves a level of trust, and we saw toward the end of last year that when the resources to support and enable community-driven approaches came through, vaccination rates lifted. 

Pacific early childhood centres show a strong community role

There are examples outside the health sector where you can see a strong and effective role for communities. One is in Pacific early childhood centres, such as Samoan Aoga Amata. These centres are driven by and governed by the local community, and the role of the Ministry of Education is around things like resourcing, health and safety guidance, and curriculum expectations. While education is not my area of expertise, my observation is that this balance of roles has worked well for Pacific communities – and I would be interested to see what this approach would look like beyond education.

Cultural biases may play a role in policy making and should be challenged

In terms of the policy function of the public service, I think it would be great to see as much preparation and training for new professionals as possible, including cultural awareness training. Sir Peter Gluckman did a report on policy making a few years ago, finding that, despite what is said about policy making being based on evidence, the most significant factor was people’s biases or ideology. People’s worldviews are based on experiences, and unless you’ve grown up within or close to Pacific communities, there are a lot of assumptions about Pacific peoples and the way they live. Planning a structured approach to preparing people for policy roles – including challenging any pre-existing cultural biases – will have flow-on effects for Pacific communities.

More Pacific peoples in public service leadership will have positive impacts

While I know we have good representation of Pacific staff in the public service, I would like to see more Pacific people in upper management and leadership positions. This will impact how Pacific communities see the public service, as well as improving the culture and responsiveness of the public service more broadly. This is not going to happen spontaneously – together we have to provide the vision, experience, training, and support for Pacific public servants to step into leadership.