Can you tell us about your secondment as Interim Chief Legal Counsel at Te Whatu Ora, what you loved about it, and what it taught you about yourself?

Towards the end of last year, I was appointed, on secondment from my role as Acting Chief Legal Officer – Capital, Coast and Hutt Valley District, to be the first Interim Chief Legal Counsel for Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand. 

On 1 July 2022, 20 District Health Boards and supporting shared services agencies were disestablished by the Pae Ora (Healthy Futures) Act 2022, and Te Whatu Ora and sister agency, Te Aka Whai Ora (the Māori Health Authority), came into being. It was a start-up of epic proportions, including many new organisational functions that transferred from Manatu Hauora (the Ministry of Health). Te Whatu Ora is Aotearoa New Zealand’s biggest employer, with the largest infrastructure portfolio in the country, and complex clinical, IT and facilities procurement requirements. It is also tasked with delivering public health services to all New Zealanders. The volume of work is extraordinary, and it is fast moving.

I was aware that this was ‘a big job’ - everything was new including our legislation, but I was passionate about the Pae Ora health reforms following my time in the legal team at Manatu Hauora, and familiar with the Wai2575 claim and the Waitangi Tribunal’s Hauora Report, which found that the Crown had breached the Treaty of Waitangi by failing to design and administer the primary health care system to actively address persistent Māori health inequities, and by failing to give effect to the Treaty’s guarantee of tino rangatiratanga (autonomy, self-determination, sovereignty and self-government). Sections 6 and 7 of the Pae Ora Act place Treaty-informed decision-making at the heart of the health system, by ensuring that decisions made by health entities will be genuinely informed by the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. I was excited, and humbled, to be leading the national legal function at the beginning of our organisation’s journey to Pae Ora for all New Zealanders, and very grateful to Cat Fleming for the excellent work she had done prior to and post-1 July to build the legal function.

During my time in the role (which is now being carried out by Bruce Northey – Chief Legal Adviser for Te Toka Tumai (Auckland) District until the permanent Chief Legal Counsel, Andrew Cordner, takes the reigns in August)) – I literally felt as if I was ‘plugged into the mains’. I’m a bit of a nerd and love to be prepared, although working in health has taught me that every day will be full of surprises and curve balls, and that sometimes being a good listener is the only preparation possible! 

The legal function is complex and extremely varied: it covers medico-legal and public health, Coroners, Police and HDC complaints, privacy and information disclosure (OIAs and PQs), public and administrative law and Te Tiriti, infrastructure and property, BAU support to hospitals and community agencies, personal and welfare guardianship orders, procurement (including IT), commercial and commissioning of health services, disputes and litigation, inquiries by government agencies, health and safety and governance.

In the role I realised after a few weeks that I had become an owl, swooping around scanning for issues, joining the dots on various matters, bringing people together, picking up worms and delivering them where they needed to go. This reactive case load sat alongside some strategic projects that I had on the go with the aim of improving process, addressing legal risk and improving efficiencies, as well as helping to design the new national legal team structure and operating model.

You have recently been involved in the Pae Ora health reforms and helping to build the national team. What did that require and what further work are you intending to do?

One of the absolute joys in the role was being able to work directly with my awesome colleagues who lead the legal teams in different Districts, and our wonderful general counsel for Te Aka Whai Ora, Jen Hale, as well as skilled external legal advisers, to get an understanding of their caseload, working as a team to share information and join up our respective knowledge on different legal matters. The legal team at Te Whatu Ora is made up of highly experienced generalist and specialist ‘bomb proof’ lawyers, dedicated to good patient outcomes, with the ability to pivot to support this dynamic and fast paced organisation as and when required. The culture in this group is very supportive and open. It was also amazing to be surrounded by people working so hard to make the health reforms a reality while in the midst of constant OIAs and media attention.

Coming together has made us stronger and more able to address matters of national relevance simply. The District legal teams are now joined by new recruits at national office specialising in public law, Te Tiriti, infrastructure and data and digital, and the team will continue to grow. We work as a national team of legal professionals who understand the operating environment and are expert in our practice areas. We will be developing communities of practice across the country and leverage from those to provide timely and effective legal advice to our clients around the motu, and work on special projects to address legal risk and facilitate good outcomes for our patients and organisation. 

We are focused on developing our competency in Te Reo Māori and tikanga Māori and will be undertaking training as a group later in the year.

In your view, what are the biggest challenges when stepping into a new position? 

It can be challenging to find things out when stepping into a new position. Starting from who's who, so an organisational chart can be helpful if one is available. It's also good to quickly find out any ongoing responsibilities or expectations including attendance or expected participation in regular meetings, groups or committees, and reporting requirements, not to mention getting to grips with the IT and any communication processes.

It can also be rather challenging to hang back when the instinct is often to act to justify one’s existence, but I think it is worth taking every opportunity initially to observe, listen and understand the climate and culture. What works in one place will not be well received in another. Relationship and visibility building takes time and is the result of many phone calls, emails, meetings, and corridor conversations with clients to build that reputation. When leading a team, trust is earned and not given, and respectful and inclusive, clear communication is so important so that we can support others to do their work confidently and well.