The challenges facing Tonga after Cyclone Gita and how business excellence can help

February 21, 2018 by ahmed
Beautiful Tonga comprising of 169 islands, 36 inhabited, facing major hardship

Beautiful Tonga comprising of 169 islands, 36 inhabited, facing major hardship

February 21, 2018. Posted by Dr Robin Mann, Head of the Centre for Organisational Excellence (COER) and Limited, New Zealand.

I was lucky. I managed to get the last flight and seat out of Tonga before Cyclone Gita arrived. I was supposed to leave Tonga on the evening of the 13th February but when I arrived at my hosts, the Public Service Commission on the 12th, all the staff were securing the building and planning to depart home as soon as possible – a state of emergency had been declared. I was advised to leave Tonga and transport was arranged to the airport. The journey, normally a 30 minute drive, took one and half hours due to the long queue of cars as families were purchasing gas supplies with power lines expected to be downed. On arrival at the airport I was informed by Air New Zealand that the flight was over booked and I should go back to my hotel. However, I waited in case some passengers did not turn up, luckily this was the case and I managed to purchase the last seat out.


With the arrival of Cyclone Gita many Tongan dreams and hopes were severely tested as homes and livelihoods were damaged or destroyed. The category four storm was the strongest to hit the Islands since modern records began 60 years ago. NASA said the estimated sustained winds from the storm reached 230kmh, gusting to 278kmh. Related deaths to the disaster have been recorded as two but could have been many more. Ten days on major problems exist with thousands of homes severely damaged and difficulty in providing water and power to all areas. To compound matters there is a threat of a Dengue fever outbreak with 53 cases prior to the disaster.


Destruction of Parliament House, 1000s of homes damaged

Destruction of Parliament House, 1000s of homes damaged


I arrived in Tonga on Wednesday 7th February on an assignment to assist the Public Service Commission (PSC) develop a strategy for excellence for the public sector. Dr Lia Maka, CEO, of PSC and her staff stressed the need for change and the desire to develop a public service culture whose “minimum standard is excellence”. We talked about the approaches of other countries to embed excellence within the fabric of government and the economy. I shared my experience of working in Singapore and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which have made dramatic strides forward in short periods of time. The common thread between these countries has been a strong and stable leadership with a clear vision to become the best that they can be. This has been backed up by the use of capability building through business excellence models and learning from best practices. Singapore on most international measures is now in the top 10 in the world and often No. 1., for example, in School Education1 and Government Effectiveness2. The UAE on most international measures is in the top 30 but climbing quickly with high ratings already in a number of areas such as No.1 for Transport Infrastructure3 and No.2 in Country Capacity to Attract Talent4.

Together we set about working on a business excellence strategy for Tonga. We decided on a three-year strategy of capability building prior to business excellence awards being introduced. The proposed strategy consists of annual business excellence self-assessments facilitated by PSC to enable public sector agencies to identify their strengths and opportunities for improvement, an annual business excellence conference, a best practice competition at which each public sector agency shares between one to three good to best practices, two best practice sharing days per year between public sector agencies for each category of excellence, and 10 targeted benchmarking projects per year to address areas of major concern that would bring large rewards once the identified best practices were implemented. All activities would be designed to maximise the involvement of public sector staff from the various agencies so that a spirit of improvement and transformation would be fostered as wide as possible.

An essential element of the strategy is that each agency take responsibility for its own excellence journey and a helping hand is provided when needed. I advised against introducing a business excellence award for at least 3 to 4 years. Administering a business excellence award requires substantial resource and for organisations that are just beginning an excellence journey the award criteria and assessment methods would be too daunting. With annual self-assessments conducted across all public sector agencies it will be possible to track their performance and determine the average level of excellence for Tonga’s public sector. This will provide a base-line for moving forward year on year.


Services being considered for Tonga’s public sector

Services being considered for Tonga’s public sector


Tonga ranks around 100 on most international measures with an average GDP per capita of US$4,160 which means many Tongans seek employment overseas. Indeed, approximately 100,000 people live in Tonga whilst a similar amount live in Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Now, as a result of Cyclone Gita the challenges are even greater but Tongans are strong, determined people – look no further than Pita Taufatofua who has competed at both the Summer Olympics (Taekwando) and Winter Olympics (Cross country skiing). Without snow in Tonga, Pita trained by strapping planks of wood to his feet and sliding across a beach or using roller skis. Discussing the cyclone, in an interview with Newshub, Pita said “We’ve been rebuilding for a thousand years, we’ve had cyclones come before. What hasn’t been affected is the heart of the people. Buildings we can repair but the core values and the core strengths of the Tongan people, no cyclone can come through and affect them. That hasn’t been touched.


Pita Taufatofua practicing on skates to Olympic flag bearer and cross-country skiing.

Pita Taufatofua practicing on skates to Olympic flag bearer and cross-country skiing.

There is a cause for optimism. Prior to leaving Tonga I was invited with PSC to discuss the proposed strategy with the Deputy Prime Minister and Cabinet. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. The Deputy Prime Minister, Hon. Semisi Lafu Kioa Sika said he approves of the strategy and will be delighted to support its presentation to the CEOs of the public sector agencies. The Hon Dr Tevita Tu’I Uata, Minister for Commerce, Consumer, Trade, Innovation and Labour, who has had previous experience of business excellence when working for Boeing in the United States, was most enthusiastic. Dr Tevita had been part of the team that helped Boeing win the United States business excellence award – the Malcolm Baldrige Award. He said that the pursuit of excellence using business excellence models will be a Game-changer for Tonga.


A happy team after our visit to the Cabinet. Dr Lia Maka, CEO, PSC (right), Dr Robin Mann, COER, Charlotte M. Vuki, PSC, and Moleni Ika, PSC.

A happy team after our visit to the Cabinet. Dr Lia Maka, CEO, PSC (right), Dr Robin Mann, COER, Charlotte M. Vuki, PSC, and Moleni Ika, PSC.


The focus on Tonga right now is the clean-up and repairing homes and livelihoods. This is the first step. The strategy for excellence in Tonga’s public service will be launched formally in June/July this year.

To help Tonga overcome this crisis, please click on a link to make a donation. The Tonga National Emergency Management Office manages donations to the disaster from most charities and ensures money is spent wisely. Remember, every little bit helps, thank you. face

Adventist Development Relief Organisation (ADRA) New Zealand
Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand
Christian World Service
Habitat for Humanity Emergency Disaster Appeal for Cyclone Gita
Oxfam New Zealand
Rotary New Zealand
Redcross New Zealand
Tearfund New Zealand Cyclone Gita Appeal
Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA)

1. OECD (2016), PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and Equity in Education. OECD Publishing. Paris
2. World Bank (2016). The Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) project. World Bank. Washington, DC
3 & 4. Schwab, K and Sala-i-Martin, X. (2017). The Global Competitiveness Report 2016-2017. World Economic Forum. Geneva

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