Surprise honour for Chief Ombudsman
Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem’s sense of fairness and justice, instilled by her Catholic Lebanese family, has shaped her career.
This culminated last month in the Pauatahanui resident being admitted to the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the state.
Ms Wakem says the honour came as a huge surprise, especially after receiving a CBE in 1990 for her work as chief executive of Radio New Zealand.
‘‘ I was just absolutely gobsmacked. I was quite amazed. Having got my CBE, I thought I’d done my dash,’’ she says.
Ms Wakem, 68, has been Chief Ombudsman since 2010, the first woman to hold the position. She heads a staff of 61 who assess public complaints about central and local government.
‘‘Just making sure the wheels of government move smoothly,’’ as Ms Wakem puts it. ‘‘We don’t advocate for either side, we have to just look at the facts and look at the law, and make a sensible and intelligent argument on the key issues.’’
Ms Wakem became an Ombudsman in 2008 after a high-achieving career in broadcasting, communications and human resources. She is president of the International Ombudsman Institute and has been president of the Asia Pacific Broadcasting Union; has sat on the Higher Salaries Commission and is an active member of Rotary.
She is also known locally for protesting the Puketiro windfarm development near her property.
Ms Wakem’s values were instilled by her parents, who were both children of Lebanese immigrants to New Zealand, she says. She sums it up as ‘‘do unto others, a sense of fairness and fair play’’.
Her work ethic is another result of her migrant family, she says.
‘‘They’re compelled to do better than what they were in their homeland and they’ll have a sense of wanting to contribute and making a difference.’’
At 19 Ms Wakem left her university study to begin a cadetship at National Radio. She needed the money, she says.
She spent nine years
in spoken programmes before getting restless, then took up a Rotary scholarship to do a masters degree in communications in Kentucky, USA. On her return she was invited to apply for the head of programmes job, and over the next decade helped create iconic programmes like Morning Report and Afternoons.
By 1984 she was chief executive.
Ms Wakem never encountered the glass ceiling, she says.
‘‘I can’t say truthfully I have felt blocked because I was a woman,’’ she says.
In 1991 Ms Wakem moved to Wrightson as communications and HR manager, before freelancing and sitting on boards until 2005, when she was encouraged to apply for the Ombudsman role.
Her greatest achievement in the job was an investigation of ‘‘ near misses’’ in hospitals, which culminated in an initiative to encourage medical staff to report serious events.
Ms Wakem plans to retire when her second term finishes in 2015.
‘‘ I don’t want to work this hard ever again,’’ she says.
Fair play: The Chief Ombudsman, Pauatahanui’s Dame Beverley Wakem, has led a stellar career driven by a strong sense of fairness and justice.