Former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala Challenges Health Ministers to Set Ambitious Goals

Addressing serving health ministers, as well as current and former cabinet-level officials from around the world, former Secretary for Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala, leading a discussion on bridging the gap between government aspirations and accomplishments, urged health ministers to pursue ambitious goals with purpose and persistence. Secretary Shalala advised ministers to have a clear sense of what they want to achieve and how they planned to achieve it. One of the toughest aspects of leadership she said is building shared values, effective relationships and trust with the professional civil service and various stakeholders. A strong sense of conviction she said is crucial to getting others to support your goals. She encouraged ministers to set big goals, even if they might not be fully realized during their term in office, and to stay focused on the end goal even while dealing with the routines of government.

Harvard Chan School Dean and former Mexican health minister Julio Frenk said the way to achieve big goals in government is to relentlessly put one foot in front of the other on the path to progress. He acknowledged that this required comprise without sacrificing principle, as well as an ability to navigate the court of public opinion, and take both praise and criticism without being swayed by emotion. Dean Frenk also referred to the loneliness of public office and the importance of reliable information systems to ensure the minister is getting accurate information, a trusted top management group, as well as the accessibility of the minister to less senior officials and public constituencies.

This discussion was a highlight of the fourth annual Harvard Health Leaders’ Ministerial Forum which annually convenes a select, invitation only group of serving health ministers from Africa, Latin America and South East Asia. The principal goals of the Ministerial Forum are enhancing leadership effectiveness to create the enabling conditions for sustainable improvements in the quality of public health services and health outcomes. During an intensive five day “immersion” program at Harvard ministers discuss the ideas, tools and methods for strengthening their leadership in a drive for more effective and efficient resource utilization, improved standards of service delivery, and targeted health priorities. The end result of the Forum is a high-level public health sector strengthening plan customized by each ministers to the specific circumstances of their countries.2015 MoH Forum Group Photo

Commenting on the experience Namibian health minister, Bernard Haufiku said he had only been in office a few months and the workshop had helped clarify his vision for improving health in his country and how to get it done. Davit Sergeenko, the health minister for the Balkan country of Georgia, said that the Forum has enabled him to “look at issues deeper, systematically and analytically and to see new directions” in health policy. Fenton Ferguson from Jamaica said he had been in office for four years and regretted he had not had the opportunity of coming to Harvard sooner, but he said, “I now have a much more clear sense of what is important and how I should prioritize my efforts.”

The Harvard Health Leaders’ Ministerial Forum is core component of the Ministerial Leadership in Health Program which is a joint initiative of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard’s Kennedy School. Sixty seven health and finance ministers from 45 countries have participated in the program over the past four years.

For a summary of the Forum proceedings see: