14 September 2023

“I see the role as a chief connector, chief coordinator, or chief enabler to support communities,” says Ezra Schuster.

“Ultimately, it’s about getting the right people at the right table at the right time. And it won’t always be the same people, there are big differences between dealing with issues like Covid and mental health or family violence, for example.

“But the principle is the same: connecting the right people to get the best outcomes for communities.”

Ezra is the Regional Public Service Commissioner (RPSC) for Waiariki Bay of Plenty, and one of 12 working across 15 regions on behalf of the Public Service.

Employed by individual government departments, they help join-up Public Service efforts with stakeholders in the community to define priorities and improve services and outcomes. They can also escalate issues to senior Public Service decision makers where necessary.

Ezra at a Regional Public Service Commissioner meeting. Photo by Adrian Heke.

The approach acknowledges that iwi and other Māori groups and regional stakeholders (including Pasifika, local government, business, ethnic and community groups) know the realities of their communities and hold valuable insights into what can work to improve their wellbeing.  

“There’s a Samoan proverb: e fofo le alamea le alamea. It means our communities know the answers, our iwi leaders have the solutions, so it’s very much about connecting the dots to allow those solutions to be put into practice,” says Ezra.

The system works on the operating principle of, ‘Locally led, Regionally enabled, Nationally supported’.

“We know that local communities are best placed to identify what is important to them and develop approaches to their priorities – our job is to back them to do that.”

A unique aspect of the system is that all RPSCs actually have two roles, which they have to balance.

For Ezra that means he is also Partnerships Director at Manatū Hauora Ministry of Health.

He integrates the work as much as possible, thanks to the Ministry, and has the support of four staff - two directors and two advisors.

“It’s not Monday and Tuesday Regional Public Service Commissioner, then Ministry of Health Wednesday to Friday. Social determinants have a massive influence on health outcomes and so it’s very much trying to integrate the work and my roles,” he says.

It’s definitely a challenge, but you manage it because you really love it. I care deeply about my region and the people – that’s why I do it.

For Ezra, his regional area of responsibility reflects the rohe of iwi descendants of the two waka of Te Arawa and Mataatua. It includes Rotorua, Whakatāne, and Tauranga, down to Taupō and Tūrangi.

The work is shaped around 4 pou of Whānau (thriving families), Oranga (livelihoods), Hapori (housing and building communities), and Whenua (environment). All are interconnected, all requiring a holistic approach to solutions. 

Examples include coordinating action on housing, health initiatives, youth offending programmes, as well as disaster response and preparedness. The Covid and Cyclone Gabrielle responses in particular have highlighted the importance – and increased the mandate – of the RPSCs, who have become crucial conduits for getting funds and support to local communities.

“It’s really varied work. I could be in meetings with colleagues from Manatū Haoura Ministry of Health and Te Whatu Ora first thing, then mid-morning I’m coordinating a meeting with iwi leaders in Rotorua over a housing accord and then with local government Chief Executives about spatial planning. 

“In the afternoon it might be talking with regional agencies about homelessness, and then bringing Pasifika leaders together with Police colleagues to form a va’a, an advisory group, to provide a stronger voice at our regional leadership table.”

Born and raised in a tight-knit Samoan Catholic community in Māngere, South Auckland, Ezra is proud of being one of the first Pasifika RPSCs. He credits the core values of tautua (service), fa’aaloalo (respect) and alofa (love), plus his time at De La Salle College where he was head boy, with inspiring him to become a youth worker, moving onto community development, education and now health. 

Ezra speaking at a mental health engagement event supported by the Public Service alongside several NGOs in Tauranga Moana. Photo by Bay of Plenty Rugby Union.

He describes relationships as “absolutely critical” to the trust he’s helped build in his region, and is thankful for the support of Regional Leadership Group co-chairs, Kirsti Luke of Ngāi Tūhoe and Fiona McTavish of Bay of Plenty Regional Council, for holding him to account,

“We’re moving from good transactional relationships, to longer-term, trusting, enduring, honest relationships. And that’s built on meeting kanohi-to-kanohi and mana-to-mana over a period of time. It’s not instant.

“And the thing about trust is that you can’t buy it. It’s hard to build and it has to be reciprocal and honest. You can spend years building it and then one interaction can set that back by years.

“We are growing in confidence, but I don’t take that for granted.”

He says the challenge now is to make sure the framework is enduring – building something that’s not based on personalities, that communities can understand and tap into, and that the Public Service in Wellington can tap into as well.

“It’s essential that whoever comes after me doesn’t have to start again, and that’s why we’re taking a principled approach, a way of working, and developing it into an enduring framework.”

Ezra says due to the difficult, complicated nature of the issues, communities will always need a joined-up Public Service.

“Across the Public Service everyone does fantastic work, but not one leader, agency or sector can do this work on their own.

“Being able to piece things together by connecting that work, I get a real buzz out of that.”