LEADERSHIP Is Clark in her PriMe? A post Helengrad management scorecard

Remember Helengrad? That was the moniker applied to micromanaging Prime Minister who scolded ministers, bureaucrats, journalists and anyone else who got toe out of line – she who ruled with an iron hand.

And “was” is the operative word. You don’t hear about “Helengrad” much nowadays. One newcomer to the Wellington cult of politics-watching hadn’t heard it at all.

That speaks silent volumes about the evolution of Helen Clark’s management. She is across the whole of the Government, just as in the Helengrad heyday, but no longer is she so obviously the potentate.

What has changed?

Mature, secure and centred
First, the Government has matured. In December 1999 only five of the Cabinet had previous ministerial experience. Now most of the ministers have been there three-and-a-half years, with relatively little shuffling among portfolios.

They are incumbents now. They know the wheezes, the shortcuts, the drill for dowsing the brushfires which are Cabinet’s daily experience.

They’ve got to know their officials and, some of them, got on top. At least, they are no longer nervous or suspicious of them.

They’ve got through the “must-do’s” that planted different ethos in the Beehive. The language of Government, for the time being, is Labour.

The second big change in what used to be Helengrad is that Labour is up and National is down. Unease that voters might decamp back to the party that dominated government for half century has gone.

The turning point that marks every government’s eventual slide from power is not in sight. No government has gone this long without hitting the turning point since Sir Keith Holyoake’s 40 years ago. Perhaps not since Labour’s first turn in 1939 has government been so high in public estimation in its fourth year.

The centre is Labour’s. The old rival National is thrashing about in the margins.

Which leads to the third big change. Helen Clark is going home.

Home for child Helen was small farm – quintessential middle New Zealand.

She left for long OE in academia and the female left of the Labour party. She was there so long that what she learnt makes up much of her style and her policy leanings. But increasingly the farm girl is visible. Example: amidst the “dog-bites-girl” furore early this year she said dogs are for rounding up cows.

The farm girl is careful with money (the Budget must balance). The farm girl values order. The farm girl is conservative. She also knows how decent middling folk think because farm girl is one of them. When the Appeal Court ruled the foreshore might be in Maori customary title, the farm girl knew instantly she had to keep it in public hands.

Yes, Clark reads polls. Devours, more like it. But increasingly she trusts her instincts. She very seldom commissions special polls, despite enduring myths to the contrary. The polls are double-check not marching order. Their use is to “throw up insights we didn’t pick up”.

Clark the information sponge
More important is listening. Sure, as Prime Minister, she makes pronouncements as an authority. But at least once during week and often also at the weekend she is out of Wellington mingling with her subjects. Good managers walk the floor of their enterprise, listening to the rank and file, learning as well as commanding.

The range of people she meets is vast: top business to little old pensioners, grandees of the arts to tots at school. Once the wallflower, she now works room as if born to it. She sponges information.

“I am out there so much that it’s like running one big focus group yourself.”

She instances opening retirement home. “You’ve got the old people, you’ve got their families, pretty much middle-New Zealand. And you’ve got the lawyers, the architects, the builders, the designers, all associated with the project. You’ve got the racecourse they’re in partnership with.”

Watch closely and you may see her jot down note (she, by the way, not flunky). Later, often as late as midnight, the portfolio minister will get call. What’s the story? Should/can something be done? Action.

“Responsive” is Clark byword. Yes, there is programme driven by Labour ideology and attention to friends, which infuriates business and gives opposition parties grist. And Clark has not been afraid to lead with stands she thinks might be unpopular, as with Tampa refugees and Iraq.

“You have to have clear idea of what you want to do,” she says.

But beyond the programme – and often adjusting it – is the old conservative trick of minor alterations to make the existing order work bit better.

She listens to ministers, too. senior minister says her door is open. Or rather, her phone is on.

“We do talk to each other,” Clark says. “We don’t talk through staff. There is constant interaction on the phone.”

The result, she and her ministers agree, is collegial and coordinated Cabinet. To enhance coordination, Prime Minister’s Department official is assigned to most portfolios.

The constant contact is also partly because she expects early warnings of things going awry (George Hawkins failed last year on leaky homes). It is also because, contrary to legend, ministers say she is supportive. She is sometimes indulgent, George Hawkins being prime example and Parekura Horomia another.

She is also tough on ministers. Ruth Dyson got spell in the sin bin for drinking and driving, Marian Hobbs one over location perks. Says minister, she “demands very high standards of everybody”.

First, she expects ministers to be on top of the issues. If they aren’t, they get “help”. Next, if something goes awry, “don’t let it fester”. minister says she “judges people by whether something is put right rather than whether something goes wrong”.

Helen’s helicopter view
It adds up to discipline and attention to detail. Clark is famous for conducting morning radio news interviews from bed – “I’m going to hate those phones with video in them”–– but she is already at work and will have finished late the night before. She is highly disciplined in her work and private life, to the point almost of presbyterian rectitude.

She writes most of her own speeches because most audiences “are looking for you to express some opinion, some passion, some interest in what they’re doing”.

This discipline allows her time for her trademark availability to journalists. Speed-dial her and she rings back, mostly.

The cost is that some delicate things better left unsaid in the public interest get her into trouble. But the gain is that, while journalists don’t usually slavishly run her line, they know her position. And she trades gossip. Journalists are useful source of intelligence.

Alongside the market intelligence and discipline is helicopter style of managing big or vexatious matters.

The helicopter hovers over the whole span of government. She comes to press conferences very well-briefed and with an impressive grasp of the detail of portfolios. If she doesn’t know something she says so. But usually she knows.

The helicopter drops in from its hover station in two cases. One is to take charge of, or push along, big issue: climate change was one last year. The other is when something goes wrong.

A helicopter landing can sometimes disconcert or diminish minister, of course. Pete Hodgson was put in bad light when electricity got the treatment.

But, ministers say, she contributes usefully to their portfolios. And both ministers and MPs say she is an excellent chair. Cabinets are structured, minister says, but “if you are pertinent and adding value”, you get your say, even as an opponent. In an inexpert chair, this can lead to meandering meetings. Clark knows when to curtail debate.

There have been incidents of fury when she has overridden or blocked minister or MP. But it passes. There are differences in this government– some quite deep – but, remarkably, not splits.

Avoiding the splits
In fact, Clark is m

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