It seems that the announcement that Roger Sutton will be the chief executive of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) has met with extraordinarily widespread approval, and I’m glad.
I’ve never met Roger, but I had already formed the seed of an opinion of the man from several things I’d read about him in recent years and what I’d seen of him on the telly since the February earthquake.
From media reports, it’s clear that his new fan club includes a very broad cross-section of Christchurch and politicians country-wide. And the reason is clear – so clear that I hope it serves a huge, unequivocal message to other current and wannabe public sector leaders.
Roger’s appointment is a victory for engineering substance over bureaucratic fiddling, for direct communication over risk-averse media management.
I wrote a couple of months ago about my fears that the do-as-I-say approach to Christchurch people by military-trained Civil Defence leaders would do more harm than good after the initial crisis had passed. Until recently, when they began to realise that there’s no harm in listening, their view was based on the fundamental, unquestionable rule that “safety is paramount”. But rebuilding a city and a community must be about much more than just safety.
Now my fears have lessened considerably. If anyone can do the job it will be someone who commands far more respect than minister Gerry Brownlee, and that someone is Roger Sutton.
And this reinforces something we all know intuitively but often don’t appreciate directly – the value of plain speaking when we’re faced with a real challenge.
We saw it in the first weeks after the Pike River coalmine disaster: while the chief executive Peter Whittall was being admired and thanked for giving straight answers and treating us as grown ups, the police officer in charge Gary Knowles (who may be the finest fellow around for all I know) drew suspicion every time he spoke that he was hiding things and using “official speak” to avoid risking someone getting upset. “Trust me, safety is paramount, you don’t need to know any more.”
Gary’s performance felt to me like a doctor who is scared to tell a patient that they have a bad disease for fear of them not coping. Instead they resort to using unfamiliar words and leaving out bits thought to be dangerous if not managed by knowledgeable officials.
Back to Roger Sutton’s appointment. He has shown already that he is capable of talking directly about the good and bad bits without frightening the horses. And he appears to have a track record of facing technical and organisational challenges, applying a good mixture of common sense and engineering practice (which he knows is never a 100% art), and getting on with the job. And if decisions cannot be made just yet, he can explain to ordinary people why not.
Most people appreciate empathetic, honest communication far more than being nannied to remain safe.
My apologies to those who would like to add genuine comments to my blog articles, but I have had to disable comments because I was being flooded with spam messages from people posting non-specific, automated comments aiming to get links to their dodgy sites included in commentary (doubtless to boost their Google ranking). If and when it ever stops, I will renew the comments feature.