Poipoia te kākano kia puawai – the power of support

Rawinia Thompson (Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongomaiwahine) is the recipient of the 2021 IPANZ Public Administration Prize awarded to the top student in PUBL 311 Emerging Perspectives in Public Management at Victoria University of Wellington School of Government.

She began her career in the public service in 2017 in an administrative role at the Ministry of Education. After working full-time and resuming studying part-time for just over two years, she graduated in early 2021 with a degree in public policy and political science. She is now a Senior Policy Analyst at Manatū Hauora, Ministry of Health.

Rawinia shares some reflections on her study and her experience in the public service so far.

When asked why people work in the public service, most will say something like “to help people” or “to make a difference”. I’ve certainly found that to be true of colleagues I’ve worked alongside over the past few years. I often say that improving outcomes for people, whānau, and communities, particularly for Māori, is what gets me out of bed in the morning.

We all know that there is much work to do in boosting Māori cultural competency and growing Māori leadership in the public service. While it’s not yet perfect, I’m grateful to be a Māori public servant, especially in the newly reformed health system at this time. Te Aka Whai Ora, the Māori Health Authority, has been established. Colleagues are engaging with Te Tiriti principles of tino rangatiratanga, partnership, active protection, equity, and options, articulated by the Waitangi Tribunal through its WAI 2575 inquiry. The idea of “by Māori, for Māori” decision making and service delivery is being supported. Māori conceptions of holistic wellbeing are being promoted across government. Te reo Māori, even at the most basic level, is being spoken daily. My name is rarely, if ever, mispronounced.

Beyond Orewa

I recall in my earlier days of study having to walk out halfway through a public policy tutorial. The discussion topic was the Orewa speech delivered by Don Brash. For readers who are not familiar with the speech, it framed Te Tiriti as outdated and racially divisive and called for “one rule for all”. While intelligent discussion should be encouraged in academic settings, the comments I heard about “Māori privilege” that day were ill-informed, ignorant, and deeply upsetting. I share this story as a comparator to show how far general consciousness in this area has progressed in the past few years. After this and other similar experiences, I was really hesitant to walk into the office in my first government job, but I’ve generally felt culturally safe at work (and very much embraced at Manatū Hauora).

Building the Toolkit

To further reflect on study, I really appreciate having the foundational knowledge and skills that I picked up in the policy major – such as machinery of government, intervention logic, and options analysis. These are all core skills and competencies to have in the toolkit for a policy person. (I like to think that although I’m a complete policy nerd I’m quite cool and fun as well!) My political science major also helps me to understand and accept the political environment we work in.

There were also some key learnings from the public management course I received my IPANZ award for. Firstly, I must mihi to Professor Michael Macaulay, who brought both impeccable academic and professional credentials, as well as a slightly eccentric yet humorous demeanour to teaching the course. Michael challenged us to take our critical thinking to the next level. We explored concepts of good governance, leadership, public value, strategy, and change. We also had the opportunity to practise some hard skills, like using risk analysis frameworks, stakeholder mapping, and preparing (fictional) advice to a public service chief executive on a strategy for solving a real-world problem. I found the learnings in this course highly applicable to my work.

Applying the Theory

As readers will know, the gap between theory and practice can be significant when faced with the realities of working in a constrained environment. Ministerial expectations, tight timeframes, conflicting views from diverse stakeholders, lack of political will, and limited resources can make it difficult to achieve what we as public servants might otherwise wish to do. The one learning that has been completely born out by experience is in barriers to cross-agency collaboration to solve shared problems. (At times, this can be almost impossible.) While no university course can fully prepare you for what happens in the real world, I feel that my study provided me with both a theoretical and practical basis for understanding and dealing with some of these challenges.

I must mihi to two of my previous managers for supporting me to study while working. Thank you both so much Hilary Penman and Phillipa Campbell – I wouldn’t be where I am today without your support and encouragement.

It’s an incredible privilege to be in a position to inform ministerial and Cabinet decision making. I’ve had amazing opportunities to work on developing and implementing budget initiatives, leading a government bill through the legislative process, and developing policy proposals for new legislation. At times policy work feels overwhelming and crisis-inducing, but it is also humbling to know that our work might, hopefully, have a positive impact on our people, whānau, and communities.

A View to the Future

Looking forward, I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to see te reo, tikanga, and te ao Māori come to life within the public service, as well as new ways of working with our Tiriti partners and other communities. I’ll always advocate for good policy stewardship and a long-term, future-focused view of problems and opportunities and hope that whichever government emerges after general election next year will take advice of that nature.

Finally, I always take every opportunity I can to acknowledge my beloved whānau for being my korowai of support in my mahi and life. My mum, Leah, has worked in a supermarket my whole life and has shown me what hard work looks like (and gives me a hard time for working from home). My dad, Mark, has worked for the Ministry of Social Development for over thirty-one years – the real spirit of service. My little sister, Regan, has a degree in Indigenous development and is soon finishing a full-immersion te reo Māori course, and this November, she will be joining the policy graduate cohort at Manatū Aorere, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Mauri ora, whānau!