The Village Operator: 9 lessons learned from working at a local level

Here are my nine basic tips and observations I learned while working as a Community Liaison Specialist on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG). For those who don’t know, Manus is famous for the Regional Processing Centre (RPC), which until recently hosted up to a thousand transferees barred from entering Australia. My role, however, was away from the actual RPC and brought me into contact with the surrounding villages, community groups and businesses.  It challenged me by having to apply my previous roles in policy and decision-making to a complex local operating environment. For those interested in taking a similar plunge in shedding a suit and tie for a 4WD I hope you enjoy the read.

1.     Take John Howard’s advice: and ‘under promise and over-deliver’. The second longest serving Australian prime minister makes a great point, regardless of the governance terrain. Big, grand and ambitious plans mean little if you can’t deliver and there’s a deficit of humility in PNG where people are constantly let down by basic health care, not enough police or even a smooth road to drive on. Notably, I worked with one person who had promised everything to local villagers from better waste collection to a healthy eating program but two months later he was gone – clearly biting off more than he could chew – and letting many people down in his wake. Don’t do this and you won’t dissolve your integrity or legitimacy – two things that take an age to build but are easily dissolved.

2.     Do a stocktake: because you don’t know where to go if you don’t know where you’ve been. It’s a tired mantra but when I arrived into this role I was in charge of a small community development fund and it wasn’t exactly clear who had been provided assistance and who hadn’t, what we’d spent on what group or what groups had even applied to us (and were simply re-litigating after we’d decided it wasn’t a good idea). It only took a few days of interviews and double-checking but I pulled together all the information I could find in a simple spreadsheet, bringing at least some rigour to what was a disjointed and poorly documented process.

3.     Work with legitimacy: and actually use the governance landscape.  PNG, despite its chaotic elections, still democratically elects political leaders and I felt I was there to strengthen the governance structure and not undermine it (or create a new one by hand picking the political representatives I wanted to deal with). The local government area that I worked in had eight local councillors. Some were more active than others, and it was clear many were hardly even engaged in speaking to their local constituents. One way to conduct yourself in these conditions is to simply be equitable. Some fishing equipment we donated, for example, was provided to all eight local councillors and not just a select few. It’s a minor example but symbolic of working with democratically elected leaders and also avoiding inevitable charges of favouritism.

4.     Take pictures: because it’s a great way to build a small bond. While on break I made sure I printed them when I got back to Australia and then took them back to the village. It’s a small gesture but a great way to build a genuine people-to-people bond. It costs about 7 cents per picture, too, so you’ll hardly break the bank.

5.     Recall history: because, despite how important you may feel, it’s all been done before. “Almost nothing is new,” says former British prime minister John Major. “It may be freshly wrapped, but it isn’t new.” I know what you’re thinking – I love prime ministerial advice. But when you feel it’s tough remember that many have come before you, often in rougher conditions. PNG is known for its district administrators or ‘Kiaps’, who operated during PNG’s colonial administration period. Tasked with some serious responsibilities, from judicial arbitrator to health care provider, and minus creature comforts of GPS, iPad and 4WD, knowledge of these men gave me an occasional reminder that outcomes can still be produced in tough conditions.

6.     Stick to the company policy: as, despite these seemingly annoying procedures, it’s your rudder in rough times.  We have all sat through boring inductions with tedious briefings on everything from the code of conduct to company values. But there’s a reason why they exist. Stick to your code of conduct and you won’t have a problem.

7.     Don’t shy away from ‘quick wins’: by looking to support local initiatives such as sports awards, school competitions and sponsorships. On Manus I found no shortage of local community events, which were easy to support and enabled us to quickly tap into a local network and build community support. A quick win can also mean coming in behind an initiative that’s already well underway. The Millennium Challenge Corporation set up by George W Bush operates this way on a global scale – find what’s working and come in behind. One example initiative was establishing the Manus Women’s Shelter led by Australian Border Force that my company supported. During the process, however, no agency involved could release petty cash quickly enough for bedding and other items to get ready for a soft opening. But the small fund I administered was a perfect fit. It was a small contribution but a great example of a quick win leveraging off a wider program to build good will.

8.     Being stuck isn’t a problem: because you can still produce outcomes when you can’t get out to the village. At times I’d be without a vehicle until I realised that, with a local workforce of 860 employees at the RPC, the community actually came to me almost every day. So I started a small Career Development Service for the local guard force. Again, it wasn’t much but, I suspect, enough to make an impact to some.

9.     Avoid double-up: by knowing your place and finding out ‘who’s who in the zoo’. My company was actually one of three with an outward facing community liaison representative. Clearly, it was important to know what these other representatives were doing to not double up but, as above, join together to build good outcomes.

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