Treasury pick carries risk of tall poppy paradox

Responding to Dr Simon Chapple about NZ's new Treasury Secretary, Professor Jeroen van der Heijden argues one doesn’t need to be a long-term resident of this country to understand some of its major weaknesses

Earlier, my colleague Dr Simon Chapple argued that the pick of Dr Caralee McLiesh as the new Treasury Secretary carries a disheartening message. Having been attracted to Aotearoa as non-New Zealander for another high-level position about a year ago, albeit not of the stature of McLiesh, I like to put Chapple’s view in some (international) perspective.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree with Chapple that this international pick of McLiesh is a disheartening message. Yet, I don’t think a creeping problem is started by this pick (or that of her predecessor Makhlouf) as Chapple argues. I think the pick indicates a deep problem of lacking skills, capacity and knowledge that has slowly crept up in the Aotearoa public sector and elsewhere in the economy over the last decades and is now striking with a vengeance.

That analysis itself makes a relevant point that goes against Chapple’s: one doesn’t need to be a long-term resident of this country to understand some of its major weaknesses – many societal problems are so pervasive that international people are actually shocked by them (housing quality, education, family violence, etc, etc). Outside blood may help native Kiwis understand that we are not “punching above our weight” (which many in the public sector seem to think) but that compared to similarly affluent countries we are doing rather poorly on many fronts (and yes, very good on others also).

My brief analysis makes a second relevant point. It is for a reason that so many of these top positions are filled by international and not local talent. I’m not saying there is no local talent, but what local talent there is, it appears not available when these jobs open up – an issue of brain drain, an issue of declined local educational standards over the years, you name it. So logically, when these jobs open up, the search for talent on the international market place begins.

It is a brave move for a small country like Aotearoa to hire so many international people for these top positions. It shows that not only will it not settle for, excuse my Dutch directness, mediocre local candidates. It also shows there is a willingness to learn how things go elsewhere by getting first-hand knowledge on board.

Contrary to what Chapple thinks, for her new position, McLiesh doesn’t need in-depth knowledge of each and every detail of the Aotearoa policy and economy. She needs to understand the principles of how to solve problems in an institution like the Treasury. She also doesn’t need to have a base of friends and acquaintances in the Treasury (that would be nepotism). So long as she has good social intelligence and people skills, it should not take her long to get to know the right people needed to get the job done. Native Kiwis (and non-native Kiwis working in Aotearoa alike) are exceptionally collegial and willing to help in a professional setting.

Put differently, if Chapple’s main points of critique hold then Jacinda Arden must have been some sort of superwoman (I do believe she sometimes is, but not always) who knew each and every relevant person in the public sector, and was aware of each and every relevant policy document and policy problem before she became PM.

The real challenge for McLiesh, I feel, is not so much being able to get her head around Aotearoa’s most pressing problems and getting to know the right people to solve these. The real problem will be working with native Kiwis. In my humble experience of having worked in a high-level position at the Victoria University of Wellington for about a year now, I have come to learn that there initially is a great eagerness to hear from ‘internationals’ how things are going elsewhere, but only if the message is that things are better in Aotearoa.

Native Kiwis are, in my experience, easily offended (if that line, or anything up to now has offended you, then I apologise and rest my case). It is exceptionally difficult to communicate that an international solution to a local Aotearoa problem may work, without having at least some native Kiwis in the room hearing you say that everything this country has done so far has, excuse my Ozzie slang, come a gutser. Time and again I encounter this ‘tall poppy paradox’ (which is a tad different from its cousin, the tall poppy syndrome) and I have heard the same from my non-native Kiwi colleagues working here.

That paradox is as follows. Native Kiwis don’t like to stand out and brag. Thus, ideally, an international person transmits the message of how fantastic things are in Aotearoa. At the same time, native Kiwis don’t like to hear they are outperformed by others. Yet, deep down inside many know that it’s not all candy floss and unicorns here. Deep down inside, native Kiwis know that by hiring international talent, they will eventually get to hear what they fear to hear. Once that message comes out, (some) native Kiwis get offended and (many) seem to go in denial or ignoring mode.

Once the international hits the tall poppy paradox, she or he must make a difficult decision: stick to the reason why she or he was hired (for skills and knowledge), or pipe to the music that native Kiwis like to hear. Sticking to the former will, at least initially, not make the international’s job easy. Going with the latter feels like selling out on many fronts. More problematically, going with the latter will ultimately not bring Aotearoa why it hired the international in the first place.

The real problem does not relate to the limitations of the international talent (ie, not being a native Kiwi with experience in the Aotearoa public sector) or the further hollowing out of local talent over the years to come, as Chapple argues. The real problem is that there is so little talent available locally when a position like this one opens up. This problem is already in the public service. And that problem goes deep and is vicious.

I hope McLiesh is as quick to spot this problem as many of her international colleagues in Aotearoa and makes it a mission to address it.

Professor Jeroen van der Heijden's work is organised around innovations in regulatory governance, regulatory stewardship and how good regulatory practice can deliver on Aotearoa/New Zealand’s critical policy objectives. He also is an Honorary Professor with the School of Global Regulation and Governance, Australian National University.

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