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Using EMPA skills to deliver award-winning reforms to disability

11 March 2021

News and media


James Poskitt headshot

Disability support services in Aotearoa-New Zealand are a major investment for the country’s government. There are about 1,000 disability support providers supporting approximately 43,000 New Zealanders as part of a $1.7 billion industry that is overseen by the Ministry of Health.

As Group Manager Disability Strategy, Policy and Performance within the Ministry, James Poskitt leads the overall disability system strategy, which has been on a transformational journey during the past five years.

“The way that disability support services are delivered has been completely disrupted and changed,” says James. He took on his current position in July 2019 and has continued the process of change started by his predecessor. His role is to help manage a complex set of relationships between people with disabilities, assessors, disability support providers, local health providers and the Ministry of Health.

“We are taking a much more person-directed approach to how disability support is delivered so the person is the authority over their own lives and determines what they want and need and how they received that support,” he continues.

“I took on this position because it was an opportunity to lead a big system-level change program and it feels like it is solvable – it was just about bringing it into effect. The job also appealed to me because the system is a combination of being very operational – the direct provision of services – and being highly strategic and political as part of a complex health system.”

James was National Manager Service Delivery in the Ministry of Social Development when he was given the opportunity to study ANZSOG’s Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA).

“I was at a point when I needed some formal professional development. I needed to keep learning and to gain a broader perspective if I wanted to keep growing. I needed some good management and public sector tools and the Ministry’s organisational development team decided ANZSOG’s EMPA would be a good match,” says James.

“I thought I had a good knowledge base, but then I did the program and I realised how narrow my frame of reference was. The program showed me how different important disciplines and elements are and how they come together and that was powerful.”

James has held positions in Education, Justice, Social Development and Treasury but it is work in the disability space that is a personal and professional highlight so far. In 2019, he was part of the team that won the Leadership in Governance Award for its work on Enabling Good Lives – a project centred on the reform of New Zealand’s disability system and giving people with a disability and their families greater choice and control.

But after leaving high school, James had no particular career path in mind. The first member of his family to go to university, he opted to study Political Science.

“I had a few different jobs but making money for someone else had no appeal for me. I wanted to be useful to people and the Ministry of Social Development was just being created, so I started as a case manager for work and income in a small town. I started at ground level, took opportunities as they presented themselves and eventually made my way to Wellington and to the national office. I learned by doing,” he says.

James believes the EMPA learnings which were particularly valuable, included being exposed to policy frameworks, system design thinking and strategic leadership models and these continue to help him in his day-to-day work.

“These are things you need as a public sector leader. The EMPA gives you foundations and confidence to work across disciplines and to step outside what you already know,” he says.

“I still talk about the Strategic Triangle all the time and the concept of what’s the public value here, where’s the legitimacy and support coming from and what operational capacity do we need to be able to deliver?”

The work-based project was also a positive learning experience that saw James work with a team across jurisdictions and disciplines. They had to develop a strategy involving the former Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs(FaHCSIA).

“I always come back to the toolkit, frameworks and models that the EMPA provided,” says James.

“The confidence gained is important too, and the knowledge that you have to keep learning, to fight off cynicism and to remain open to new thinking. I would recommend the EMPA – it sticks with you and becomes part of how you think and how you approach challenges and new ideas.”

James can’t imagine a career outside the public service and he is relishing the challenges and learnings that are part of his current position.

“For me, a good day at the office is being confronted with 15 problems and engaging with different people to find solutions,” he says.

“This morning I attended a session on how we can lead the next phase of transformation, then I had a budget conversation with the Treasury and then went to a meeting with our governance group to deliver on obligations. After that I had a leadership team meeting about flexible working arrangements as we come out of the COVID response. A lot of what I do involves working with different people with different perspectives and ideas and bringing them together and I enjoy that.

“I think the common denominator in the roles I’ve had is an opportunity to be part of a reasonable-sized change and to tackle problems in each place, to create a strong value proposition and to have an impact.

“From a young age, my aspiration was always about doing good and trying to have a positive impact in the community. I can’t imagine doing anything else now.”

Find out more about ANZSOG’s Foundation Programs

Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA)

A part-time postgraduate qualification developed and delivered by ANZSOG exclusively for high-performing public sector managers.

Executive Fellows Program (EFP)

A three-week program challenging senior public service executives working in the public domain to develop new leadership perspectives in a contemporary and highly interactive setting. 

Towards Strategic Leadership (TSL)

A unique two-week program that helps public service leaders develop the qualities needed to thrive in a senior executive role: a strategic outlook, political astuteness, personal resilience and the ability to reflect and learn continuously.

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