We need to heed the lessons of the resounding success that came from government inviting everyone to pitch in on a big project, argues Duncan Greive.
Super Saturday sounded forlorn and somewhat lame when it was first announced. Chris Hipkins told us about “a national day for vaccination” just 10 days before the event kicked off. It would be “a bit like election day”, which probably sounds exciting to a political lifer, but queueing to fill in a form is not most people’s idea of fun. Elections are roundly avoided by many young people – the group the government most needed to reach with its vaccination campaign. Hipkins went on to say that the event would involve “all our civic and political leaders”, which also sounds fairly dry.
So why was Super Saturday such a huge success? Some of it is undoubtedly due to heroic planning and execution, and after a horror communications run, this should absolutely be seen as a triumph for a government sorely in need of one. But the main reason it succeeded so wildly is because it was embraced by all of Aotearoa, from large corporates to cultural leaders to media to local councils to small businesses to iwi to community groups. They donated everything from free public transport to live music to cellphones to coverage to coffee in an effort to get people in the queue.
Dr Rawiri Jansen wrote a superb realtime dispatch from the frontlines of the Māori effort. “We need more supermarket vouchers, more of the beautiful face masks and more fried bread.” It captures the energy, the resourcefulness and the determination of all involved. This was mirrored across the motu – an effort that was decentralised and thus ownable by anyone willing to participate, and as a result had a huge impact on a vaccination campaign that seemed to have started to stall.
Super Saturday’s success feels like it contains the seeds of an approach that might be useful beyond one blazing day, and take advantage of all the resourcefulness this country has long prided itself on, rather than only that of our central government. The sense that everyone could pitch in provided a sorely needed burst of unity that showed just how much can be achieved when the government asks for help with a problem, rather than feeling alone with it. And that the whole community is willing to help, when given a big goal and a guide to their own participation.
Going it alone
All year there has been a growing frustration at the way the state’s understandable desire to exercise tight control over the pandemic response has lingered on. The slow pace of motion on vaccine mandates has frustrated business, as has the unwillingness to offer some flexibility on MIQ, impacting everything from Amazon’s decision to move the Lord of the Rings production to UFC star Israel Adesanya’s having to leave without knowing when he could return.
You also saw it in the way the central government’s health apparatus has dragged its feet on rapid antigen testing, frustrating business that wanted to protect its staff in the way that business has safely been doing all over the world for months. It’s also visible in the Ministry of Health’s unwillingness to share Māori vaccination data with John Tamihere’s Waipareira Trust or engage Pacific health providers hard and early, despite its manifest inability to work effectively with those communities.
The irony is that the government has essentially acknowledged its own frustration with the bureaucracy by creating the “ministry for delivery” earlier this year, partly in response to its frustration at signature failures like Kiwibuild and light rail in Tāmaki Makaurau.
This attempt to use a new agency to hold the vast apparatus of the state to account shows just how badly trust has decayed between those who pass legislation and those tasked with implementing it. But it’s important to remember that the state is not the only actor in the New Zealand story. The community sector and business are large, powerful, innovative and capable of moving very quickly when the moment requires.
Of course, these sectors have been involved in the response throughout. MIQ itself happens entirely at requisitioned private sector accommodation; much of the security at MIQs has been outsourced to the private sector, as has the build of the Covid Tracer app. Healthcare providers like The Fono and South Seas have been critical in the pandemic response, as have iwi. But for the most part these are specific procurements of narrow services, rather than issues presented for a wider engagement.
The case for a problem shared
There have been tantalising signs that the vicelike grip the state has had over the response has been loosening in recent weeks. Sir Ian Taylor’s campaign for government to “bring on the bench” has resulted in a one-man home MIQ trial, a chance for one of our greatest innovators to once again contribute to the public imagination. Rapid testing is now coming, in part because the business ministry MBIE intervened on behalf of the consortium of frustrated corporates that had given up on the Ministry of Health.
There is plenty more scope for this. The upcoming shift to a traffic light system could be an opportunity to reset relationships and engage with the same groups that made Super Saturday so successful. Businesses could provide scale data on use of vaccine passports in return for the ability to cautiously reopen solely with double vaccinated staff, to double-vaccinated customers Community providers could incentivised financially (and able to pass on inducements) to the unvaccinated to help lift rates in harder-to-reach communities and rural areas that continue to lag.
This is not new to us – this country has a long history of public-private partnership, and iwi and community groups have always stepped in where the state has failed. In many ways it is Aotearoa at its best and most authentic, allowing that no one group of us has all the answers, but we all have a role to play in shaping this nation.
A perfect example of this was the “vaxathon” TV event that documented and provided the backdrop to Super Saturday. It was cobbled together in a matter of days, helmed by a private Māori-owned production company in Bailey Mackey’s Pango, and held at Avalon Studios, the former hub of all state broadcasting in the country. It screened on three channels, one state-owned, one foreign-owned, one Māori-led, but made ample use of Tiktok and was enthusiastically embraced by all media. The talent was wildly diverse, with traditional egos and rivalries put aside for the day so that TV veterans shared space with sports stars, bureaucrats and politicians, along with our global stars beaming in from across the world.
And it achieved something extraordinary: 130,000 shots in arms, with the most-impacted ethnicities Tongan, Sāmoan, Niuean, Cook Island, Tokelauan, Latinx and Māori. It showed a whole nation making pizza and hāngī and coffee and music, creating a show that was messy, energetic, authentic and represented the best of us. It showed this suddenly embattled government that there’s a whole lot of us out here, ready to answer the bell when it rings, and quite keen to pitch in, since you asked.
This is not to understate the magnitude of the task ahead. We currently live in a country with hastily erected internal borders, an outbreak simmering in our largest city and a final push for vaccinations that will prove harder than the first stage. There are many examples of New Zealand governments collaborating well with the private sector, and just as many disasters. This one has the pressure of time and impossible stakes.
Still, Super Saturday’s journey from a weird idea to a resounding success shows what can happen when the might of the state and the ingenuity of our business and community sectors collide. It provided a moment of national unity that felt like a different vision to the division and acrimony that has characterised the later stages of the pandemic in most of the world. It felt like the seeds of us once again choosing a different path out of the pandemic, much as we chose a different one in.
It might be worth our trying to harness it again.