Nine years of neglect blamed for poor public health services

Warren Lindberg

Wellington, December 16, 2017

The Public Health Association of New Zealand (PHA) welcomes the Stage 2 Report of the Havelock North drinking water inquiry, but has concerns about some of its recommendations.

While criticism of the performance of the Health Ministry may be justified, it was not the only agency at fault.

System failure

What we have here is the failure of a complex system dependent on a range of diverse entities, and hence the solution might not be simply to establish another Crown entity.

We are also concerned to avoid handing the State’s responsibilities over to its commercial partners.

Criticisms of the Ministry’s inadequate staffing, enforcement and technical capacity come after a decade of deliberate reduction of funding and staffing for public health services.

Inadequate capacity

The inquiry concludes that the Health Ministry has inadequate capacity to maintain the effective leadership expected of it but does not explore the reasons why its capacity is so limited.

We can infer from comments by the Director General and others in paragraphs 96 and 97 of the Report that there is a degree of complacency within the Ministry.

‘Red flags’ are said to have been raised but we expect that the Ministry’s annual reports from 2009-2016 would have raised sufficient ‘Red Flags’ about under-resourcing for an astute Chief Executive and a concerned Minister to have noticed and sought answers.

There can be no guarantee that an ‘Independent Drinking Water Regulator’ will be any better than the Health Ministry, unless it is driven by commitment to public health values of equity and service and is not subject to the same deliberate parsimony of resources as the Ministry has endured for the last nine years.

Think before restructure

One of the fundamental principles for drinking water safety management identified by the Inquiry states that ‘Change precedes contamination.’

This principle applies not only to changes in the physical environment but also to changes in governance and personnel.

Government would be unwise to hastily introduce structural change to a complex system without careful and thorough due diligence.

Warren Lindberg is Chief Executive, Public Health Association based in Wellington.

(Picture Courtesy: YouTube)

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