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High in ‘comms’, much too low in service

I’m not the sort of person to say: “I told you so.’’

It’s the sort of remark that sits only marginally above “nah, nah, nah, nah, naaaah’.’ The phrase has equal parts of smugness and scorn that can all too easily lead to a fall from grace.

So I’m definitely not going down that path, but, and you knew a ‘but’ was coming, some suspicions I held about 18 months ago are now staring at me in the face as cold, hard facts.

In the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, there was a worrying trend in the Government sector to beef up communications departments.

It has now been revealed that the many and varied government departments were doing much more than just beefing up their comms teams, and some have, in fact, grown to gargantuan proportions.

I had a big moan in this very column about how increasingly impossible it had become to get anything like a reasonable response to a reasonable question in a reasonable timeframe because there was an army of communication people just waiting to defer, delay, and ultimately disappoint with the bare bones of an answer.

In one such column, I printed the exact exchange one of our reporters had with the Health Ministry as a typical example of just how frustrating things had become.

Then, this week the Health Minister Ayesha Verrall revealed the national health agency had 173 communications employees. But wait, there’s more. That number, added to at least 26 contractors, takes Te Whatu Ora – also known as Health New Zealand – up to about 200 staff in communications.

Health New Zealand is one of the larger employers in the public sector, so don’t get the calculator out and multiply 200 by the number of ministries there are. It won’t make for pleasant reading. Those sorts of numbers don’t make for a functioning democracy where transparency is paramount.

To be fair, Health NZ inherited quite a few communications people from what were the district health boards. Do you remember the DHBs? It already seems like years ago.

As you might expect, National has fired plenty of shots across the House on this matter.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon said Health NZ was a “good place to start” on the subject of cutting costs in the public sector. Its former chair, Rob Campbell, who doesn’t mince his words, said a while back that it had more than 200 communications people. Campbell was given an unceremonious elbow after expressing some private thoughts in a public space. This particular episode is to be continued.

Verrall, in response to a written question in Parliament from National, said that she did not know precisely how many comms people the agency had had, because it was still merging together nearly 30 entities with more than 80,000 staff [most of them in hospitals]. “We are still developing the final operating model for the organisation,” she said. Who knows where the final numbers will end up.

I, and many others, would be a lot happier if there were more staff at the local hospital’s emergency department and not in the comms department.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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