Public Service Awards 2023: Perfect Storm

The 2023 Young Leader of the Year award at the Spirit of Service Awards went to Suanoa (Noa) Samasoni. Kathy Ombler chats with her about what guides her in her work and how her background has informed her work as a public servant.

Traditional Pacific values of service have always guided Noa. For her they are especially relevant now, in her work as a public servant and in her current role, helping Auckland families return to their homes that were pummelled during last January’s storm. As Kāinga Ora Senior Project Manager – PM Lead, Auckland Flood Recovery, Noa has been awarded the Public Service Commission’s Te Tohu mō te Kaiārahi Rangatahi o te Tau Young Leader of the Year for 2023.

When Auckland was hit by devastating rain last January, just under 2000 Auckland homes were affected by either leaks, floods, or landslips, and Kāinga Ora needed an entirely new process to manage their recovery, says Noa.

“I think, at first, we underestimated how big this event really was. The volume of work was massive. So many houses were impacted at different levels, with just under 700 homes requiring significant work. Kāinga Ora stood up this new programme as part of our response to the flood recovery, and in my previous capacity as Maintenance Team Leader in the Māngere/Manukau area, I was asked to lead the project management team focused on reinstating the many flood-affected homes across Auckland.

“Living in Māngere, I had seen the flooding first-hand and was part of the team who were on the ground as soon as it was safe. I was very lucky my own home wasn’t affected except for access in and out of the street,” she adds.

What also helps in her Kāinga Ora role is that Noa has first-hand experience of state housing. Her parents immigrated here from Sāmoa, and she was born and raised in a state house in Māngere. “I’d often help my parents by translating for them when they were visited by people from Housing New Zealand, now Kāinga Ora.

“I remember how my parents struggled to understand these people, and they were the type of tenants who never spoke out or asked for anything in regard to the house we lived in due to not fully understanding what Housing New Zealand could and couldn’t do. I promised myself that if I was ever given the opportunity to become a public servant, I would think about my parents and talk in simple terms, always break everything down, so it’s easy to understand and ensure our families knew what Housing New Zealand can do for them.”

Noa says she didn’t actually plan to become a public servant. “I went straight from college to university to study a BA in Criminology and Sociology, but after 18 months took a break and joined the workforce.”

She took on call centre work, first with Qantas and then as a Housing Adviser within the contact service centre (CSC) for Housing New Zealand (now Kāinga Ora).

“I really think that the contact centre opened my eyes and laid the foundation for what it means to be a public servant. I got to talk with so many people from different backgrounds, different ethnicities, and different upbringings, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It helped me understand how Kāinga Ora works and showed me paths I could choose within the organisation if I wanted to pursue a career here. I became a public servant by accident, and the short time I spent in the CSC led to my decision to stay,” Noa says.

She’s now been with Kāinga Ora for seven years. “After eight months in the contact centre I was very fortunate to be given an opportunity within the Maintenance Delivery Team, first as an administrator then working my way to a supervisor role.

“In the Maintenance Supervisor role, I covered a number of different portfolios in Northland and Auckland and worked with different Maintenance Partners. In 2020, I was appointed as the Maintenance Team Leader in Counties Manukau.” For now, Noa is still with the Auckland Flood Recovery programme, reinstating damaged homes in the face of continued bad weather.

“This project has taught me so much. It’s taught me the importance of patience and preserving. It’s also taught me resilience. Initially we expected to have all the repairs done by the end of June; however, as the repairs are complex and require coordination, we needed more time to get the job done and done well. We also need to consider our customers and ensure they are well supported through this journey. It’s also reminded me to be kind. That includes to my colleagues and to myself.”

In this respect, Noa insists the award is not just about her. “My personal journey is blessed to have had a lot of people giving me support and kindness, amazing people with amazing aspirations. My name is on that plaque, but I see it as an award for everyone who set up this amazing programme.”

And it’s the core Pacific values of service that Noa most embodies. “For me, growing up as a Pacific Islander, service is ingrained in you. It starts at home; it’s then reinforced in church and schools, and now in my everyday mahi. There is no discrimination when it comes to service; it’s about service to anyone, in any shape or form, big or small, and it can make a big difference. My parents always reminded me that it’s just what you do.”

Asked what she would say to other young people considering a public service career, her answer was simple. “Do it,” says Noa. “It’s worth it. It’s fulfilling despite the challenges. I never lose sight of why I’ve joined. Have your ‘why’ and think of it every day and let that be your driving force.”

This article is published in the Public Sector Journal - Summer 2023, Issue 46.4.