Forget about the conflict of interest, Tony – here’s your chance to chop out the spare mandarins

Bugger ... it looks suspiciously like a conflict of interest!

Alf has written to Health Minister Tony Ryall to draw attention to a money-saving opportunity.

Tony is dead keen to grab money-saving opportunities, and to thin down his ministry and to make district health boards look for savings too by constraining their budgets.

Yeah, it’s a bit like tummy-tuck surgery except it has the unfortunate consequence of leaving the public with reduced health services.

But dammit, we have a fiscal crisis on our hands.

Anyway, the cost-saving idea identified by Alf simply requires no more than a bit of redundancy among the ministry mandarins.

A glaring example of a candidate for redundancy is the Health Ministry official who says he will not resign if elected to Wellington’s district health board, because he believes he can do both jobs at once.

And no doubt he can knock off a couple of cryptic crosswords while singing “Yankee Doodle” in Urdu at the same time.

Health Ministry director of public health Mark Jacobs is standing for Capital & Coast District Health Board in this year’s local body elections, with the prior approval of the ministry. In his candidate profile, he calls himself “a senior public health medicine specialist at the Ministry of Health”.

In his role, he has a direct line of accountability to Health Minister Tony Ryall, and last year he led New Zealand’s response to the swine flu pandemic.

Alf shares Green Party concerns that a conflict of interest arises in this case (although he will not publicly declare his agreement with anything identified by grouchy Greens as a problem).

New Zealanders have a curious inability to see a conflict of interest, even when the conflict they run into is as glaringly obvious as an elephant wandering down the highway.

Mark Jacobs can see the conflict but is confident it isn’t big deal in this case. He

… said yesterday that there were “clear processes” for managing conflicts of interest and he would not step down from the ministry if elected.

“[I] believe I can continue on in both positions. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t have put myself forward as a candidate.”

Yet while seeing no conflict of interest on the one hand, this Jacobs bloke is smart enough to tell us he has deliberately not listed his exact job title in campaign material, saying to do so would be inappropriate.

“I felt it was important not to create an impression that I was running as the `director of public health’.

“I’m not running as the director of public health, I’m running as a resident of Wellington who is a public health medicine specialist.”

The Green Party’s health spokesman, a bloke called Plague or Vague or something like that, reckons Jacobs could not carry on in both roles and should choose between the two if elected.

“As director of public health, he does have a direct line of accountability to the minister.

“That’s an insurmountable conflict of interest.”

Mr Ryall should not confirm his appointment if he were elected, unless Dr Jacobs gave an undertaking to step down from the ministry.

Judith Aitken, a board member, talks of a “frisson of discomfort” among some candidates and health board staff about Jacob’s candidacy.

Alf does not find this helpful, because words like “frisson” do not slip into his conversation too often. In fact, he can’t recall ever talking of a frisson.

He would have said some board candidates and staff were discomforted by the situation (and, because it is probably true, he would also have said they are thoroughly pissed off).

Alf is disappointed that the Minister has squirmed out of saying anything on this topic to the scribes at Stuff.

Mr Ryall refused to comment.

But Alf supposes he was thinking in terms of a potential conflict of interest controversy and he would know there is lots of wriggle room on that issue.

The Health Ministry’s conflicts of interest guidelines state that employees must not hold office in any organisation funded by the ministry, unless the restriction is waived by the director-general of health or their deputy.

A ministry spokeswoman pointed out that Virginia Hope, Capital & Coast’s deputy chairwoman, was seeking re-election despite being on the National Health Board – an advisory committee within the Health Ministry.

Yep, we could look further into Hope’s conflicts but she is not a direct employee of the ministry.

But forget about the conflict-of-interest angle, because if you start sorting out one conflict you will finish up finding a huge rats’ nest of the buggers.

It’s the double dipping that needs attention – finding out which jobs are so trivial that those who are responsible for them have enough spare time to take on another job.

It’s a bit like surgery, come to think of it – just whack out a kidney, a lung or a testicle. The patient can live without it.

Dunno why Alf is not the Minister of Health. His skill at ripping the innards out of a sheep before chopping it up for the deep freeze are much admired around Eketahuna and he would be a dab hand at ripping spare jobs out of the Ministry of Health.

One Response to Forget about the conflict of interest, Tony – here’s your chance to chop out the spare mandarins

  1. […] Tony thinks, of course, because he discussed the matter with the Minister as a follow-up to posting an item about the matter in this blog last week and sending the Minister a […]

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