Developing policy and driving decisions

Physics and Mathematics alumnus Duncan Matangi has absolutely no regrets about swapping from Engineering to a Bachelor of Science so he could focus on subjects he enjoyed studying the most.

Faculty of Science alumnus Duncan Matangi.
Faculty of Science alumnus Duncan Matangi. Credit: The McGuinness Institute

“I have an interest in, and aptitude for, the hard sciences,” Duncan explains. “So I liked the challenge offered by higher-level, undergraduate Physics and Maths courses as well as the breadth of topics available.”

Since he graduated in 2015, Duncan has forged a career in the public service, employed first as a policy analyst with the New Zealand Treasury, and now as senior analyst with the Ministry of Justice, where his work involves providing advice to Ministers in his areas of expertise: Treaty policy, Budget process, and public financial management.

For many of us, the intricacies of the political environment, and the day-to-day operations of government Offices and Ministries are a mystery. For Duncan, they’re a relished opportunity to work closely with senior politicians, and be involved (and influential) in decisions that affect New Zealand.

Your career so far has seen you move from the New Zealand Treasury to the Ministry of Justice. Why did you choose to make the move from finance?

As a public servant, you have the opportunity to either become a generalist (with a broad skill set in policy-making and government), or to specialise in a particular policy area. I was looking for opportunities that would allow me to use the skills and knowledge I had built-up at the Treasury in a different environment. In reality, the majority of my work at Treasury wasn’t finance specific, but related to the mechanisms of government, and the policy process, which are easily transferable to other policy roles in agencies.

Tell us a bit about your current role as part of the Māori Crown Relations Unit. Can you explain what your role involves?

My unit looks at how the Crown can better engage with, partner with, and support Māori people and organisations, to fulfil the relationship envisaged in the Treaty. We do this in a number of ways, like helping build agencies’ capabilities in engaging with Māori on policy, and through developing policy on the application of the Treaty to policy.

The application of your Physics and Mathematics training to your work in the Treasury seems a straightforward one, but how do you transfer your science knowledge to your current role, which seems more diverse?

Good policy analysis requires a number of skills. Logical thinking, concise writing, and clear communication are all critically important, and they’re all skills that you develop through the course of any science degree. Mathematics trained me to think logically and rigorously about complex issues. You have to set out your reasoning in arriving at a solution. This is very applicable to policy advice, as it is crucial to demonstrate how you have arrived at your proposal. A rigorous thought process helps cut through complex policy issues.

Physics taught me to write and communicate clearly and concisely, which is a valuable skill in the policy world, as decision makers need to be able to quickly absorb the information and key decisions you are outlining in your advice. Florid language, while pleasant to read, can inhibit the clear communication of ideas.

As your career progresses, each step will be more and more influenced by your work experience and less by your education. In this instance my work on Treaty negotiations at the Treasury allowed me to take a promotion and work full-time on similar work at Justice.

Being able to influence how New Zealand is governed for the better is something I am passionate about, and it drives my career ambitions and aspirations.

Duncan Matangi Faculty of Science alumnus

Can you tell us about a recent project that you’ve worked on?

My last project at the Treasury was helping with the implementation of the ‘wellbeing approach’. This approach guides the Government to take a broader view of what success means, by measuring and reporting on the breadth of factors which contribute to people’s wellbeing – and not just restricting government reporting to financial measures.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

Getting exposure to a wide range of Ministers and their working styles has been valuable for me in understanding how decision-making works at the top level of Government.

Working on the delivery of the annual Budgets has been a particular highlight, as it’s one time of the year that the work of the Treasury and the decision-making of the Government is presented and considered by the wider public. Advising the Ministers of Finance over those Budgets was a valuable experience and taught me a lot about the value of high-quality advice that serves its purpose well.

What kind of impact do you hope your work will have?

My focus in providing advice is that it serves Ministers well. Accurate information is crucial for Ministers to make good decisions but they are incredibly busy. Concise, well-framed advice is often more effective than thorough, information-heavy reports.

I hope that I can bring a pragmatism and clarity to complex issues, and use my experience of how the system of Government works to improve how we work to improve the lives of New Zealanders.

Where do you see your career heading? What else would you like to achieve?

I’d like to work in management in the public sector. I enjoy helping people develop their skills, and I enjoy shaping and positioning advice at a high-level rather than being bogged down in the details.

I’d also like to be an advisor to the Prime Minister at some point!

What drives you?

I’m driven by doing the best job I can at whatever I’m doing. Being able to influence how New Zealand is governed for the better is something I am passionate about, and it drives my career ambitions and aspirations.

Finally, tell us something about yourself that we can’t learn by Googling you!

I used to fly planes quite regularly back when I was a member of the Air Training Corps.


This article appears in the December 2018 edition of inSCight, the print magazine for Faculty of Science alumni. 

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