Public servant Paula Rebstock has been recognised for her services to the state by being made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Jo Moir spoke to her about her most challenging roles, the sacrifices and how she deals with, often negative, public scrutiny. Money-hungry, a patchy performer, unqualified for your job: for most people, having those insults hurled your way would make 2015 an annus horribilis.
For Paula Rebstock, however, the barbs were nothing compared to some of the darkest days in her career.
When a lone gunman walked into a Work and Income office in Ashburton in September 2014, killing two staff and leaving a third seriously injured, Rebstock - chairwoman of the Work and Income board - stood alongside workers and the community as they struggled to make sense of the tragedy.
"The senseless loss of life of staff, those things are the things that are truly hard to deal with, and those things put life in perspective."
Now, her appointment as a Dame Companion of the NZ Order of Merit has provided a new perspective on her years of work. On New Year's Eve, Rebstock, her husband and two daughters will take up glasses of bubbles from their holiday home in the Bay of Islands, toasting a successful year rounded off with a "surprising" honour that brought her to tears.
Standing in the kitchen with her husband while opening the mail, Rebstock thought nothing of a letter from Government House, assuming it was her annual invite to Waitangi Day commemorations.
"I opened it and was really quite taken back. My husband said to me, 'What is wrong with you?' and I handed him the letter with tears running down my face. He looked at me and said, 'Oh God'."
Rebstock's two daughters, aged 20 and 24, have made "a lot of allowances for the certain work schedule their mother keeps" so she was straight on the phone to tell them the news.
"It was a special family moment, no question."
This isn't Rebstock's first award: after completely revamping the Commerce Commission, she was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2009.
Rebstock, originally from Montana in the United States, moved to New Zealand in 1987 and says the honour helped her to feel at home.
"For me it was something about being accepted in this country and really being a New Zealander like everyone else."
First employed by Treasury as an economist, she then served in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet before moving to the Commerce Commission, where she became chair in 2003.
"When I left the Commerce Commission I always thought that would be the thing in my career I'd most feel proud of because we really did shift the work of the Commerce Commission to be far more productive."
On leaving the Commission in 2009, Rebstock was asked to lead an expert panel on probation services, which at the time was "really in a state of crisis".
"They were an agency under siege."
After cleaning up that mess, Rebstock moved onto ACC where her first experience on the board was a "terrible privacy breach". Details of thousands of ACC clients, some who fell under sensitive claims, were accidentally sent to ACC claimant Bronwyn Pullar.
"It really rocked the organisation...it involved a fairly large transformation in order to earn back the trust and confidence of our customers."
Most recently, Rebstock has been chairing a review of Child Youth and Family - a government department that has endured years of overhauls but no real change.
"If I'm honest I don't think I realised how big a challenge it was going to be...we've not done well by children who come into the care of the state."
Labour leader Andrew Little was scathing about her $2000-a-day salary for the review, saying she was "in it for herself" in what he described as a "pretty patchy career".
Rebstock is not new to criticism of her work, singling out "relentless" scrutiny while at the Commerce Commission, but says she does not let the political jibes get the best of her.
"These things are political processes and it's part of the game...it would be crazy if I allowed myself to get caught up in that - that's not to say at the time I didn't think, 'Gosh, why am I doing this again?'."
For now, it's Christmas at home, then a month at the beach and much excitement at the news her elderly parents and sister plan to travel to New Zealand in the New Year to celebrate her honour.
"People have to make a lot of allowances for you in their life when you get involved in a lot of these things and my family have always done that."
© 2016 Fairfax New Zealand Ltd