Working together to make a difference – interview with Mike Munnelly

There were scenes of jubilation last year when the pay equity extension was announced. But what led to that point, how did those involved work together to make it happen? We interviewed Mike Munnelly on the eve of his retirement from Barnardos to hear about his journey through social work leading up to this significant landmark announcement for the profession.

Kia ora Mike, please can you tell us about your social work journey? Where did it start?

My starting out in social work had a lot to do with my mum – who was a much-loved tea lady at the local social services department [in Leeds, UK] and the fact that I could play a bit of football! As a teenager I used to get roped into play for the local office team. I would play football with these great people who seemed to spend a lot of their working day just talking to people! That sounded like the job for me. Little did I know!!

On a more serious note a loving family, an Irish catholic upbringing, being taught by Jesuits and growing up in one of the poorer parts of Leeds ( we didn’t have an inside toilet until I was 13) provided me with a good mix of a healthy dose of catholic guilt, a recognition of the importance of service to others and the need for social justice which is probably for the foundation to why social work for me.

What was your education and training?

My first degree was Economics and Social Sciences at Manchester University. Although not a social work degree as such, it helped me make sense of my experiences and introduced me to issues such as structural inequality, and you could say it was the start of becoming politically aware.

All of that cemented my wish to do social work. I was successful on getting a trainee social worker role back home Leeds. I had a small caseload, weekly professional development and was well supervised. It was a great way to be prepared for the profession.

A year later supported by my employer I went on to do my Masters in Social Work and professional qualification at Nottingham University. Being a trainee first, meant that I already had some core skills and knowledge, which maximised the benefit from my professional training and meant when I returned to Leeds as a qualified social worker whilst nervous, felt well prepared. I think the trainee model was a really good and something it would be nice to see replicated in Aotearoa.

What areas of practice have you worked in?

Child and Family Work in the UK

Back in Leeds as a jobbing social worker I worked in a long-term children’s services team. It gave me a broad, interesting experience and I was able to build a breadth of knowledge and practice including through group work, family therapy, and individual work with children. The ‘long term’ nature of the caseload meant that I was able to build and relationships with families, and I have always believed this is at the heart of the way we work – relationships are key. Honesty, trust, continuity, unconditional regard, doing what you say you will do and working ‘with‘ people rather than ‘doing to’ are part of the recipe in working for change.

I developed my specialism in child protection work, moved into a practice leader role and then management. Whilst the work was specialist it wasn’t narrow in its approach. We developed innovative programmes, for example an award-winning programme of group work for children who had been sexually abused; working with families to create safe environments for children to thrive, taking a holistic and strong multi-agency joined up partnering approach. From there, I moved from the local authority and went to a large UK-wide NGO as chief child protection advisor before moving to Aotearoa with my partner Rosemary in 1996.


Work in child protection wasn’t readily available when I got here so I took up the position of Professional leader for social work at Middlemore Hospital. I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to New Zealand working in the heart of South Auckland. The social work team was a mix of skilled pakeha, Māori, and Pasifika practitioners. I had much to learn but was able to ask lots of questions and received a huge amount oof support from so many people. They were so patient bringing me up to speed and helping build my understanding of Te Tiriti and what it is like for Māori and Pasifika. It is a time I remember with great fondness.


As I settled into my life here I could see gaps in excellence in practice, and was encouraged to help bring my knowledge and experience to the next generation of social workers. So, from the Middlemore role, I went on to teach at Manukau polytechnic. Again, it was such a good experience and more education for me. It is so rewarding to still meet students today who I taught, some now in senior positions – and some even quote back at me word for word some of things I said in the course!

Child protection in New Zealand

Later a role came up in Child Youth and Family meant I could return to child protection practice. I became a National Operations Manager role initially covering East-West region from New Plymouth to Gisborne and then Auckland before eventually moving into National Office to be National Manager Care and Protection in Service Development.

I loved all my time there. It wasn’t easy – some of the issues about the nature of that agency which are around today were also present then. But it was place full of incredible people trying to do a good job often in difficult circumstances…. and much of what was achieved sometimes gets forgotten.

Chief Executive of Barnardos

I then took a bit of l a diversion into being a ‘regulator’ at the Department of Labour working in Health and Safety and Employment relations for a few years. Although it was interesting and rewarding place it wasn’t where my heart truly was. I missed social work and work with children and families. A Barnardos job came up 11 years ago and I was lucky to get it before becoming the CE four years ago; and I have had a most wonderful time.

Can you tell us a bit about your work on the pay equity settlement?

This is one of the best pieces of work I have been involved in over my career – both because of the impact and because of the experience itself.

Barnardos was one of five employers selected by the PSA for the focus of a representative claim for pay equity for social workers in the NGO sector. The others were Christchurch Methodist Mission, Ngāpuhi Iwi Social Services, Stand Tū Māia and Wellington Sexual Abuse Help.

We did not know each other well, but there were two key commitments we made right at the start that served us so well – one, that we would stick together – and stick together we did – and two, that any settlement we reached had to work for the sector as a whole. We could see this was a genuine opportunity to make a real and strategic difference for the sector and for the tamariki and whānau who use our services.

We had a strong team, and received invaluable support by the Social Services Providers Aotearoa in the guise of Brenda Pilott who has been integral to what’s been achieved. The level of trust and honesty was high. We had a collegial way of working, including with the PSA and officials. We had difficult times and difficult conversations, but it wasn’t tempestuous and was always focussed on a solution. Every question or challenge we experienced came not from a desire to create barriers but rather a place to enable change.

Achieving this settlement is remarkable. It is a massive recognition for the profession, with the right remuneration, and funding for registration, training, continuing professional development all in the settlement. It represents a significant investment in the future for Aotearoa.

This has been life changing for social workers and now provides a really strong foundation on which to build.

It was just fantastic!