Annual Report 2005/2006
During the year under review the Ombudsmen have placed a particular focus on how we might better relate to a wider and more diverse range of New Zealanders. Importantly we are anxious that the office is not seen as an institution which is concerned primarily with handling complaints from those who are familiar with the processes and procedures of government agencies, to the exclusion of those who are not.
We have also attempted to focus more closely on the situations of individual citizens who have been seen as posing particular difficulties for some of the social support agencies. This is not to deny our traditional customer base but is a manifestation of the Ombudsmen’s role as an agency of last resort. This is also not to say that we can solve every problem that is brought to us – far from it – but we have enabled some more challenging individuals to have their concerns addressed in situations where they had perhaps given up hope and to some degree had been "written off" by the agencies concerned. This is one of the more satisfying outcomes of our work.
Agencies which have been involved in such initiatives include ACC, where we are hopeful that recent interventions by our office will assist the Corporation as it reviews its approach to its clients in order to better respond to those New Zealanders who have particular and sometimes complex problems with that organisation. Immigration New Zealand is another agency where we have been asked to intervene on a number of occasions on behalf of persons seeking responses to, or changes in their immigration status. Another agency that has responded positively in a similar situation is the Otago District Health Board. We can report that the response to our initiatives by these agencies in particular has been encouraging. We propose to maintain our focus on them and other agencies with social responsibilities. We have also taken up directly with the Chief Executives of two of these agencies how they might apply some of the lessons learned from our involvement to their own service delivery procedures with the twin objectives of reducing the number of complaints referred to this office and at the same time improving their own complaint handling processes.
It is very pleasing to note that the office is at last making some substantive progress in developing our ongoing interface with Māori. We have received strong support from a number of Māori organisations. We are attempting as opportunity permits to make formal Marae visits to be followed up by informal advice and discussion with individual Māori on matters of concern.
We have been helped in this by the support of our Kaumatua, Mr Henare Kingi, who has very much smoothed the way as we have progressed this initiative. The availability of information in Te Reo about the office and the services it offers is proving very beneficial and the commitment of our Māori staff in helping us drive this initiative needs also to be noted with thanks. We are looking also to aligning our regional clinics where possible to Marae visits. We still have a long way to go but it has been of concern that the office has not perhaps been as accessible to Māori as it should be.
During the coming year we will look to initiate similar initiatives with the Pacific community, based again on having our literature available in Samoan as well as the Asian community for whom we hope our literature in Chinese will also be of benefit.
The office continues to receive complaints against decisions of government agencies from a very wide range of New Zealanders from all walks of life. In the year under review these ranged from complaints in relation to:
- Defence contracts;
- school boards of trustees;
- tertiary students and tertiary institutions;
- a range of local government organisations;
- social services agencies;
- a number of Crown entities; and
- a range of other complaints about issues which in one way or another impacted on the wide spectrum of citizens which make up New Zealand Society.
Increasingly complaints are proving to be quite complex with the result that the completion of investigations can sometimes be drawn out. Those that are comparatively straight forward are nevertheless significant to the people who come to us.
We continue to encourage agencies to improve their own complaint handling procedures in the interest of better use of our own resources as well as attempting to have agencies more effectively handing complaints at first instance. We should not be seen as an automatic fall back to cover avoidable departmental errors. We are here to provide a genuine last resort for complainants, a message that we continue to reinforce directly with agencies. A number of local authorities are also adopting more robust complaint handling processes, a practice which we support.
Nevertheless it is pleasing to note that New Zealanders are coming to expect more of Government and their agencies. We continue to encourage citizens who believe that they have been treated unfairly to take up their concerns with the agencies involved and in the absence of effective resolution to take the matter up with our office.
The office’s active outreach programme was continued. A total of seven "Clinics" incorporating 24 regional centres was held during the year just ended. Where practicable the Clinics were aligned with meetings of Community Law Centres and Citizens Advice Bureaux, which organisations continue to provide a very good channel through which the public in the regions can make contact with our office. We very much appreciate the ongoing support of these two organisations.
A programme of addresses to a wide range of communities and related organisations about the office supplemented our more traditional programme to Law Schools and faculties of government/political science at major tertiary institutions. In addition we continued to meet demands from central and local government agencies for training, particularly on the Official Information Act, but also on our Ombudsmen Act jurisdiction. We also participated in more formal seminars on the Official Information Act which enabled us to reach a wide range of holders of information as well as those who are requesters of such information.
In April of this year we both attended the regional meeting of Australasian and Pacific Ombudsmen (APOR) in Perth, where New Zealand’s experiences in a number of areas were able to contribute to the deliberations of this body.
Following on the September General Election we briefed MPs about the role and functions of the office. We have also briefed ministerial advisers on the Official Information Act with particular reference to their role in advising Ministers on the operation of the Act. We are hopeful that one result of this latter initiative in particular will be Ministers being better informed so as to facilitate their handling of requests under the Act.
New Zealand’s experiences as a small Ombudsman office with a comparatively wide jurisdiction, including our official information jurisdiction, continue to attract comment from a variety of sources. The Chief Ombudsman presented papers to the 9th meeting of the Asian Ombudsman Association in Hong Kong on New Zealand’s approach to complaints from prisoners and also on freedom of Information, in particular our official information legislation.
In April of this year New Zealand’s experiences with the Official Information Act, with particular emphasis on the impact of security issues on the operation of freedom of information legislation, was the subject of presentations by the Chief Ombudsman to two international conferences on freedom of information in London and Manchester. Encouragingly New Zealand‘s approach to the handling of official information remains at the forefront when compared with approaches adopted elsewhere. However this does not mean we should become complacent. New Zealand’s Official Information Act remains a key mechanism by which governments and their agencies can be held accountable for their decisions.
Encouragingly we have not seen this year the level of questioning of our jurisdiction under the Ombudsmen Act that we had noted previously. We note also that the links between the two statutes (Ombudsmen Act and Official Information Act) are being demonstrated more often. Information obtained under the Official Information Act increasingly is forming the basis of wider investigations under the Ombudsmen Act. This use of the Official Information Act is to be encouraged as it is all part of the overall constitutional accountability framework.
While we are reluctant to name agencies, we record with some concern the approach of the Institute of Environmental Science & Research Ltd (ESR) to an official Information request of that organisation which is detailed at page 32 of this report. Responses such as this to official information requests are to be discouraged. They detract from the credibility of the Act and also reflect very badly on the organisation which holds the information. Fortunately this response is the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless as we noted in last year’s Annual Report unwarranted delays in release of official information clearly work against citizens’ ability to exercise their democratic rights.
Surprisingly the demand for our services continues to increase. Some of this growth may of course be due to more awareness of our role as a result of our wider communication initiatives, but perhaps it reflects that more New Zealanders are not prepared simply to accept decisions by government agencies that they feel are unreasonable and unjust. If so, this is an encouraging development. The office exists to facilitate resolution of issues arising from such actions. Conversely, where our investigations have found that agencies have not acted unfairly or unreasonably we make it clear to complainants that this is so. This can sometimes provide us with a different challenge - convincing complainants that not infrequently agencies get it right!
We continue to value the support we receive from Parliament, the Speaker and the Officers of Parliament Committee. We record also the ongoing contribution from our dedicated and highly motivated staff, without whose strong support our office would not be able to function.