Guess what happened in New Zealand this week when a news story broke about Treasury civil servants playing a card game that featured ‘sun feelings’ and ‘moon feelings’? The playing cards were part of a staff wellbeing initiative to help people be more empathetic at work and have different conversations with colleagues.
What could have happened next was that a Treasury spokesperson robustly defended the cards, saying it was important for staff to get support around wellbeing, and that this was a low-cost approach that used a different and fun way to challenge entrenched patterns of behaviour. That wasn’t what happened.
A national news story broke: Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister, had to answer questions about it. Another party leader described the Treasury as ‘bizarre’ and ‘out of touch’. It was seen as further evidence that the current government are putting ‘fluffy’ ideas ahead of hard policy. Green Party MP Chloe Swarbrick, who featured in the promotional video for the wellbeing initiative, had to go on-record saying that she did not seek to “prescribe what certain workplaces should be doing with their time.”
Catherine Mangan and I are in New Zealand as guests of ANZSOG. We’ve been talking at various events about the 21st Century Public Servant research (although we’ve not said much about our own playing card game lest it provoke further ire). In all the conversations we are having with public service leaders and managers, we all agree how important it is to take risks, do things differently, shift modes of thinking. ‘Seek forgiveness not permission,’ we say, and everyone nods.
But if we can’t be brave about the tiny little things – like a staff card game that uses some different language (and which its designers link to Maori metaphors) – how can we possibly expect staff to be willing to take risks on the big stuff, on the different ways of working with communities, of supporting families with complex needs?
I’m dismayed that it remains so hard to be brave even about the tiny things that government does that are a bit different. Although this issue is in New Zealand, we are all aware of similar types of stories from our own jurisdictions. The stories that make you think: that’s a handful of public servants who took a bit of a risk and are now being flayed for it. They won’t make that mistake again.