Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Heroic Bureaucrat

Fiction makes me feel about one inch tall. Bruce Willis’s Armageddon hero bravely giving his life for his planet actually brought a tear to my eye not long ago. Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore rallying the troops on the dawn of the decisive battle in Independence Day made me swell with pride as he thundered that “we will not go quietly into the night.” These are some seriously inspiring guys.
It’s also a little disheartening. Fiction or no, heroes and heroines are fantastic role models. But they’re fictional.They don't - and can't - exist or be taken seriously in the real world; for evidence of this, look no further than the US, where, in 2003, then-President George Bush tried to emulate Whitmore's flight suit and roguish personality. The results were not positive.

Where, I ask, are their non-fiction equivalents? I’m not asking for a carbon copy. Just someone who follows in the footsteps of the fictional.

There’s good news. I’ve found a hero in the vein of these. He comes with a reality check, as he doesn’t fly fighter jets or set off nuclear bombs in asteroids; by contrast, he’s a civil servant. But that is irrelevant. Courage, moral strength, and integrity are values to be celebrated and striven towards regardless of venue.

I’m referring to Richard Thomson. Readers can be forgiven for not being familiar with him, especially those from outside Dunedin. He’s the chairman of the District Health Board, a job that, while difficult, does not generally lend itself to heroism. Usually, it’s a fairly invisible position, the type upon which the spotlight is only shown when something bad happens. “Child breaks arm; given prompt care” and events of its ilk are not usually headline-worthy.

This steady, invisible positivity recently veered sharply towards its converse when an IT consultant’s lavish lifestyle was brought to Thomson’s attention. Being an attentive leader, he investigated and found that the consultant in question had been embezzling public funds from the hospital for years, to the tune of a whopping $17 million. Thomson alerted the authorities and the thieves now await sentencing.

None of this behaviour is particularly heroic. What is heroic is what happened afterwards. As with most scandals involving public service and its requisite money, a scapegoat was demanded. In truly medieval fashion, the people demanded appeasement with, if not someone’s head, then at least his or her career. In keeping with this time-honoured tradition, newly-elected Health Minister Tony Ryall asked Thomson for his resignation. He would quietly leave his job, someone would take his place, and the whole matter could be put to rest.

Thomson said no.

Thomson said, publicly, that if Ryall wanted him out of his job, he was more than welcome to fire him. Short of that, he would not be going anywhere.

It’s the proverbial calling of the bluff. He demanded that Ryall show his hand, list his reasons, and highlighted what everyone knows but has yet to articulate: Ryall has no reasons. The fraud that went on was unfortunate and shameful. However, it was in place before Thomson’s tenure. His only crime was to investigate it, a conscientious act that nobody should lose their job over.

The moral courage is tremendous. How tempting it must be to simply offer his letter of resignation and fade away. Given his experience, I’m sure he could find another job, but considering his background as a successful businessman, I’m not sure if he would have to.

But that isn’t the point. The point is that he refuses to be scapegoated for something that was not his fault. He refuses to discourage transparency by accepting blame when all he did was bring a crime to light. He refuses to be the simple, one-dimensional “bad guy” because the true institutional dysfunction that allowed this fraud is far more complicated. But most importantly, he refuses the temptation of popularity, disregards that which is expected, and firmly chooses the harder road. He doesn’t do this out of any kind of self-hating masochism, but because it is right. And that ability, the ability to do the right thing even though a thousand voices say it is wrong – that is the mark of a true, real-life, modern-day hero.


  1. Good on ya Sam.

    Just a couple of points to clarify - Richard is the Chairman of the Health Board (not CEO). And he was re-elected to the Board by the public in 2007.

  2. Well said. I have known Richard for a very long time and can confirm that this is by no means the first time when he has shown extraordinary moral courage and been entirely right to do so. The world needs many more like him.
    PS the two individuals charged with the fraud have already been tried and found guilty - they currently await sentencing.

  3. Thanks to you both for the clarification; I'll fix that now. Sloppy!