Pacific public service leaders face barriers to progress

Researching towards a PhD while holding down a high-level Pacific leadership role within the public service wasn’t for the faint of heart, but Dr Tutaima Fagaloa succeeded—and she says it was her topic that drove her success.

“There’s nothing that drives my passion more than working for my community and working for our people in a way that acknowledges that we face challenges,” says Dr Fagaloa, who recently graduated with her doctorate in Education at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

“The key thing for me was looking at the opportunities and the solutions we could provide to ensure Pacific people were living a good life.”

Dr Fagaloa interviewed 18 senior Pacific leaders in the public service to identify the barriers they face to achieving better outcomes for Pacific peoples, exposing “unjustified and excessive racism” within the public service.

The research identified many barriers that Pacific public service leaders face, including under-resourcing and unrealistic expectations, workplaces that don’t value the Pacific style of relationship-building, the imposition of Western-style consultation with communities, and culturally unsafe work environments where Pacific leaders “experience a sense of being inconvenient and irrelevant within the public sector”.

Female Pacific leaders reported being underpaid and facing more challenges, both within the public service and within their community, than their male counterparts.

Her interview used traditional Samoan research methods, Talanoa (conversations) and Fa’afaletui (framed discussions) to draw out their experiences. She also sat down with a group of newly graduated Pacific leaders recently employed in the public sector.

“I wanted to identify the challenges that Pacific leaders face that prevented them from being able to do what they needed to do to influence the system in a way that was positive for Pacific people. These high-level roles can be transformational, if cross-sector collaboration is unlocked in the right way.

“A system failure of government is that while a lot of consultation happens within Pacific communities, it’s how the feedback is translated into a policy setting in the faithful context it was given that matters. It can end up being a mismatch to the desired outcome after it’s gone through the scoping and service design phases of policy if Pacific leaders are not given sufficient resource to support effective service design for Pacific people,” says Dr Fagaloa.

Dr Fagaloa is frustrated that 30 years after the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs was set up to give Pacific peoples a presence in policy design, progress remains slow.

“Pacific leadership programmes are being developed across the public sector, but the environment that these leaders work in must change.

“Across the public service, while Pacific senior leaders are often not there just for Pacific peoples, they can lead with a Pacific worldview. They can get everyone on the waka, ensure everyone is okay and receiving services. They are using those traditional values of kindness and reciprocity to deliver these programmes to all communities,” says Dr Fagaloa.

After 10 years with Capital and Coast District Health Board, which saw her become Director, Pacific Peoples’ Health, Dr Fagaloa is now strategic advisor Pacific strategy for Life Unlimited Charitable Trust.

“It is great to be back in the community. In public service you have such a broad portfolio and such limited staff resource. As my old chief executive used to say, ‘You’re the conductor of the orchestra. You’ve got all these people you need to lead and guide,’ and I’ve never forgotten that.”

Dr Fagaloa is positive about the future, and says the current government is supportive of a more enabling environment than some—but success can be achieved no matter what the politics behind it, so long as Pacific communities are held at the centre. In her final chapter, she created a cultural framework centred on Tuiga (a ceremonial headdress) to create a new road for success for Pacific leaders, centring authentic collaboration, safe environments, equal opportunities, data sovereignty, and Pacific public sector leadership development.

“I’ve got family members now going into senior roles in government and I’m always telling them, don’t forget who you are writing about when your policy focuses on improving outcomes for Pacific communities. Go back to the community, do your talanoa with people that the policies are going to impact on and ensure the policy reflects this.”

Dr Fagaloa’s thesis, Pacific Peoples Leadership in the Aotearoa-New Zealand Public Sector, was supervised by Dr Cherie Chu-Fuluifaga, the late Dr Jenny Neale, and Dr Jackie Cumming.

Dr Neale was one of Dr Fagaloa’s lecturers when she completed her Diploma in Social Work in the early 90s. “Jenny had been part of my academic journey since the beginning, so her loss had a significant impact on me. But Cherie and Jackie were incredible, and supported me to get across the finish line.”