A failure of leadership

Health Minister has managed the near impossible – to unite right and left on Twitter for his throwing of Ashley Bloomfield under the bus, as captured so well by a Newshub cameraman.

Toby Manhire has an excellent article on The Spinoff which looks at Clark’s refusal to take responsibility for anything, and points out you can share responsibility rather than blame it all on your CEO.

It is true, of course, that Bloomfield had accepted responsibility for the mistakes. But responsibility is not an unshareable concept. Difficult to share: gummy bears, scooters, the human soul. Easy to share: responsibility. Take some! Get in! Of course I take responsibility – I take it enormously seriously, I take responsibility for the health system as a whole, and I will do everything in my power to make sure mistakes such as these do not happen again.

I want to focus not just on this episode, but make the case that Clark has in fact failed in multiple areas. Being a Minister should be about far more than just reading papers your ministry gives you. His going mountain biking is trivial compared to the real issues.

Not fronting press conferences

Clark was missing in action for most of the pandemic. He was rarely at a press conference. Contrast that with the swine flu pandemic where Tony Ryall held them twice a day. Ryall as Health Minister was the primary briefer.

Away from Wellington for two months

It is beyond belief that Clark was not one of the Ministers to stay in the Beehive during the lockdown. If there was any great confidence in him, he would have been there with Ardern and Robertson. He should have been playing a major role in directing and advising. He is the Minister of Health during the greatest health threat in a century.

Instead he was at home moving house, mountain biking, going to the beach and doing zoom calls.

Not been on the frontlines

Newshub reports he has yet to visit an isolation facility. Again Ryall as Minister during a pandemic was out in the front lines several times a week. He would hold his press conferences at airports, at hospitals etc. He knew that part of leadership was being at the coalface.

This also allows you to pick uo problems. You gain a huge amount talking to staff on the frontlines. If he visited some GP clinics early on he would have known what the Ministry was saying on testing and PPE was not the reality on the ground.

Again I recall Ryall used to pop into local hospital A&E clinics if he had a spare 30 minutes in a city and ask patients there how they had found the experience. Hugely valuable.

Reactive not proactive

A Minister should have a ministerial office that is there to trouble shoot and solve problems before they boil over. This requires a proactive approach.

A good Minister will know the ministry staff beyond the executive leadership team and even call them from time to time. The info that comes to a Minister formally is so filtered and reviewed that you miss out on the nuance.

More importantly a Ministerial office should be constantly doing a scan of media and social media for stories that could bite them, and then alerting their ministry to issues that need attention. There has been weeks of stories on social media about people not being tested at the border, lax isolation facilities etc. A competent Ministerial office and Minister would have been onto this well before it blew up into major stories.

Not over operational issues

The notion that Ministers don’t get involved in operational issues is a myth at best. Sure not with the Defence Force or the Police, but they do everywhere else. In fact a huge part of the job is risk management around operational issues. When you don;t do it, well remember Novopay?

If I was Minister of Health and the Ministry said they now have a policy of requiring all those in isolation to be tested, I’d be asking them, okay so how will you manage that in practice? Who is recording who is in isolation? Who is recording testing? Are they talking to each other? What is your plan for ensuring this is implemented well? I want to see that details by 10 am tomorrow.

Why Clark should go

It is fair to say not all Ministers perform at what I call the Ryall or Robertson level. And in many portfolios it isn’t that important, such as Ministry for Women, DIA, Consumer Affairs etc.

But Health, even in normal times, is a critical portfolio which does need a Minister who can lead. And Health during a one in a 100 year pandemic especially needs a Minister on top of their game, and sadly that isn’t David Clark.

What Labour should do is shift Chris Hipkins to Health. Hipkins has got through most of his educational reforms, and he definitely has the political skills and leadership to handle Health.

Ardern of course only has sacked someone to date for assaulting their press secretary, so it is unlikely she will act. But she should. Another three months of Clark as Health Minister is a threat to the high levels of confidence the Government currently has.

Of course as a National supporter I’d prefer she doesn’t take action. The polls don’t tend to react to just one week of bad headlines. But they do to a month of bad headlines, and she has to ask herself does she think they will stop without a change?

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