13 November 2023

From forensic psychologist to Regional Public Service Commissioner.

When Ben Clark sits down with agencies, he likes to start the conversation with a simple question: “What are the problems that you can't solve on your own?''

As someone whose role is to help provide joined-up solutions, it's a good place to start.

But while it is a simple question, it inevitably throws up some complicated conversations.

"When you're dealing with community systems they are naturally complex,” says Ben.

“And much as we want to keep things simple, complex issues often require complex responses.”

It's those sort of responses that Ben has dedicated his work to over the past four years as a Regional Public Service Commissioner (RPSC).

Based in Christchurch, Ben is RPSC for Canterbury and the Chatham Islands, 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.

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.  

He says that his role is about trying to better connect various agencies, as problems often arise at the edges where agencies meet.

This invariably leads to asking for more flexibility, or doing things in a way they haven't traditionally been done.

“You can get into difficulties when you start asking people to get out of their swim lane, but that's sometimes where the solution lies,” says Ben.

“For example, if we step back a little from this area we usually operate in, and you step forward a little into this area you don't usually operate in, we might get a better outcome.”

One such example of a better outcome is in the Chatham Islands, where Ben's team helped to bring four local entities together to speak to government with a single voice.

Rather than pitching individually, the group – called Kahui Manu Tāiko – produced a joint investment strategy, which articulated shared economic and wellbeing priorities and goals. Each goal was linked to specific government agencies asking for support, allowing the community to be "much clearer about what they want and why", Ben says.

Another example comes from Christchurch, where Ben has been helping to coordinate a collective response to emergency housing. There are over 300 whānau with tamariki living in emergency housing across Canterbury.

To better understand what service provisions are currently in place, a working group is being chaired by Ministry of Social Development and Kainga Ora, with support from the Regional Public Service Team.

They are working with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, Te Whatu Ora, Corrections and Ministry of Education to help determine how to collectively strengthen support going forward.

What we can do as Commissioners is shine a light across the system to see where the overlaps are, then make sure we're coordinated in our actions.

One of the original RSPCs, Ben is the only justice sector representative, combining his Public Service role with the position of Chief Adviser System Transformation for the Department of Corrections Ara Poutama.

He started his career as a forensic psychologist in the Prison Service in England where he was mainly involved in the rehabilitation of prisoners and advising parole board and court decisions.

After attaining a Masters in Criminology, Ben moved into a role as an Inspector with HM Inspector of Probation and was part of the multi-agency review teams established to assess Youth Offending Teams.

Ben says that working for Corrections has given him good experience of taking a long-term, holistic view of problem-solving.

“I think that Corrections can be perceived by some as being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, but like a lot of people in the sector, I'm motivated by affecting inter-generational change.

“We end up dealing with people with complex issues, who can have a lot of history with a number of different public services.”

So, what is the ultimate goal?

“It's a bit of a cliché, but the concept of there being 'no wrong door’ for people who come to us, where we are triaging what individuals need and then lining up the right services based on those needs.

“We are often good at doing this for reviews, when we're working out what went wrong in the past. We need to be better at doing it in advance, to get ahead of the problems – which we are – but there is more work to be done.”