One thing which makes a Government, or a local council, vulnerable is weak or out of touch advice from officials. On the ground people know when they are being fed a line of rubbish if the officials do not understand how they really feel or act because the advisors are not sufficiently connected to public opinion.
It’s the role of good bureaucrats and politicians to ensure that what people are really thinking is fed to those who are driving policy and performance. If change is needed with generally held public opinion (often because of misinformation spread by the media) then that is the political challenge.
The outbreak of Covid19 in South Auckland has highlighted a massive failure by the Ministry of health (MOH) to understand just how communities work, and communicate. How often I have witnessed very pleasant University educated middle class people writing perfectly sincere policy which has failed completely when implemented. Why? Because it was sincere; but sincerely wrong.
New Zealanders have demonstrated that we will all get in behind tackling Covid19.
However, now we are entering a new phase. The virus is taking new forms. It is being transmitted in ways which policy people didn’t predict. It is being transmitted through a community which has close contact with the front line and which includes some of our lowest paid workers.
Yuval Noah Harari, the author of “Sapiens” wrote recently:
The Covid year has highlighted the crucial role that many low-paid professions play in maintaining human civilisation: nurses, sanitation workers, truck drivers, cashiers, delivery people. It is often said that every civilisation is just three meals away from barbarism. In 2020, the delivery people were the thin red line holding civilisation together. They became our all-important lifelines to the physical world.
In the past short period, we have experienced how those who live in South Auckland have not understood the messages delivered by the nice middle-class people from the Ministry of Health. That the Prime Minister, a brilliant communicator, has been caught out with this latest outbreak demonstrates she is relying too heavily on her officials and not enough on her ground troops. Her local MP’s and Labour Party networks.
Our experience in Canterbury with the MOH with CDHB makes me extremely nervous that a Department with barely competent management has so much say. The method of communicating with different cultures is well known by so many bureaucracies. I’ve worked in them. The problem is that staff in Wellington often have no idea how to communicate with people in an area. Local staff often do.
I spoke with a friend who has had a lifetime of social activism on Friday. He lives in South Auckland. He had just visited his supermarket and told me that most people were not wearing masks. They were not distancing. Nothing much has changed.
Last week an excellent comment was made by an Auckland City Councillor, Fa’ anana Efeso Collins, about how the communication to his community has been basically poor. He said:
That the latest outbreak was also a failure on the part of officials in overestimating how well informed people are about the need to self-isolate.
“We need the messengers to be looked at, rather than just asking public figures to spread the message. We need people on the ground in Papatoetoe for example who can speak Cantonese, Punjabi, Hindi, Samoan and Tongan.”
He went on to point out techniques known forever, but too often ignored by those who write policy in nice centrally heated offices:
Collins pointed to low engagement during the census, the region’s gang issues and lower immunisation rates as examples of how disconnected some are in South Auckland. Collins is also chair of the social service Ōtara Health, which is about to employ social workers tasked with helping remedy the suburb’s gang-related violence. He would like to see the Ministry of Health take a similar approach when it comes to the immunisation rollout.
“We’ve started an initiative through Ōtara Health where we’re employing two youth workers who will engage with youth at risk of joining gangs. If the ministry was investing more in social workers and community navigators, you’d get the reach quicker and more efficiently when it comes to a crisis like this, rather than just holding a Zoom meeting for 500 community leaders,” he said.
He then commented on what is the most important point about the emphasis on compliance:
Collins is also concerned by the switch in rhetoric from kindness to compliance.
“I can see we’re slowly moving into the post-kindness phase, where instead of being a team of five million, we are hearing that people just need to be compliant, But the danger I see is that if we are forcing people to be compliant, then what does that look like when the vaccine rollout happens and half the community refuse, because it’s being forced on them. So, we’ve got to be careful how we communicate things,” he said
“And let’s not forget this is against the backdrop where you have a hospital that was dripping with poo up until recently and a health system that’s already struggling under the demand for its services, so you can start to see why some will be reticent when asked to comply with further restrictions.”
It’s interesting to note, when we read the last paragraph, that this hospital was then chaired by the CDHB Crown Monitor until 2018.
Here’s the article from Spinoff which really does challenge the competence of the MOH https://thespinoff.co.nz/covid-19/01-03-2021/post-kindness-rhetoric-targeting-south-auckland-covid-cases-will-backfire-warns-efeso-collins/.
Then out came a man I have huge respect for, Vui Mark Gosche. Mark is an outstanding New Zealander.
He has been a Cabinet Member and stood down due to his wife’s illness and went back to working on the ground in South Auckland. His comments in Spinoff were sobering:
Counties Manukau District Health Board chair Vui Mark Gosche says the sterling work of the region’s border workforce and healthcare staff in keeping the pandemic contained shouldn’t be overlooked.
“Of the vaccinations done to date, 75% are from the Counties Manukau area, which gives you an illustration of how in every part of the system, whether it’s at the airport or in the health workforce, we lean a lot on the people of Counties Manukau. “New Zealand owes a debt of gratitude to these people, to the constant, ongoing work they do, without complaint. They just get on and do it”
My message to the MOH is this. Employ people on the ground who might not fit nicely into your air-conditioned offices. People who can talk to people one to one. In their own language. In their places of residence and recreation. Train these ground troops up on what people have to do and infiltrate them into the natural networks which exist in every community.