Annual Report 2008/2009
In order to fulfil our legislative mandate and to manage our work programme more efficiently and effectively, we have reorganised the Office into targeted teams (see p 12).
An advisory group has been established to support the Ombudsmen and Deputy Ombudsman. This will strengthen consistency in Ombudsmen decisions, uniformity of professional practice, and provide a more rigorous quality assurance over the Office output. It will also assist in our goal to widen our focus from individual complaints to a closer analysis of systemic administrative failings of which the complaints may be symptomatic.
The Ombudsmen will also consider greater use of their “own motion” powers. As the report notes, we have embarked on a number of these within the prisons jurisdiction (see p 13). This type of in-depth investigation will also be appropriate for other areas of our work.
The corporate support group within the Office has been of minimal size for many years. Only two staff had been engaged on core human resources, finance, administration, information technology and information management functions. The rest of the corporate staff provided word processing, secretarial, record keeping type services and part time library services.
Our review of the Office structure identified a clear need to strengthen core corporate support capability. We have since appointed a part time Accountant to assist with financial management and reporting, and a full time Information Manager to assist with developing internal information systems and processes that support the ability of investigations staff to progress complaints and requests for review in a professional and timely manner. The Information Manager is also responsible for ensuring best practice in record keeping and information retrieval within the Office. This will also assist the Office to achieve compliance with the requirements of the Public Records Act.
Redevelopment of Case Management System
We have redeveloped our Case Management System to highlight systemic issues more effectively. It will assist in managing workflow within the office to redeploy resources to areas of need or special focus. It will also allow us to measure where work pressure builds and what amount of work is required to achieve particular outcomes. It has been obvious for some time that a substantial amount of work is being done which, because it does not always translate to a case being opened, or reopened, has not previously been recorded and recognised. This has highlighted the need for more staff.
In a difficult economic climate where agencies are being forced to review staffing and service levels, a corollary is a rise in the number of complaints this Office is receiving. Based on past experience the office expects between 800 and 900 open complaints under investigation at any time. At the end of the reporting period we had 1,330 open complaints, which has placed considerable pressure on our limited resources. The Office, like every other organisation, must manage resources prudently and, this year, we have endeavoured to manage this workload within existing resources.
Review of operational approach
Work has also begun on refining performance standards for staff to meet targets for case management and to highlight training and development needs.
Delegations have been reviewed and extended, where appropriate, to promote more efficient decision making processes.
This report focuses on the practical outcomes of working in this new configuration and on cases which highlight where the Office has been able to make a difference for both complainant and agency.
The Ombudsmen have also begun identifying situations where the publication of principles to guide future action in similar circumstances will be helpful to complainants and agencies. Two examples in the past year relate to requests for information about event funding by local authorities and lists compiled by local authorities of land that may have been affected by hazardous activities and industries (see p 27).
In both our Ombudsmen Act and official information jurisdictions, we have identified a need for agencies to think about how they could structure their policy and decision making processes in a way that allows more proactive disclosure of information about processes and decisions. In complex processes where the public interest in accountability and participation will inevitably require some degree of disclosure, agencies should think about when and to what extent information should be disclosed to give effect to those considerations. The
benefit to agencies of proactively releasing information as they proceed is that it reduces the administrative burden and transaction costs of reacting to individual requests for information or explanation about particular processes and decisions. It also promotes greater efficiency and helps avoid wasteful administrative duplication. Early disclosure of adequate information about policies and decision making processes can also assist agencies by promoting intelligent engagement on relevant issues in an orderly and constructive way.
In summary, the Office restructuring has resulted in improved systems and processes and an emphasis on professional practice and professional development. Already much has been achieved.
As the report highlights (see pp 39 to 41) this is an area where the involvement of the Office has increased. In addition, the Chief Ombudsman has succeeded Bruce Barbour, New South Wales Ombudsman, as Regional Vice President for the Australasian and Pacific Region of the International Ombudsman Institute. Together with her membership of the Pacific Ombudsman Alliance Board, this constitutes a significant input into the maintenance of professional practice, training and development of Ombudsman offices in the region.
Update on issues raised last year
In the 2007/08 annual report we drew attention to a number of issues which were of concern. Among these were:
Delays in responding to Official Information Act requests. In response to our change in process for investigating delay complaints, we note that Ministers and agencies are working to improve their performance in responding within the statutory time frames, (see p 23).
Boards of Trustees - suspensions and exclusions. The Education sector remains an area of high priority for our office. We remain concerned about the plight of teachers and pupils in situations where children with special needs are not adequately supported in the classroom. We will keep monitoring this. We continue to receive complaints on student discipline and bullying (see pp 17 to 18). We have established a regular meeting with the President of the New Zealand Schools Trustees Association to discuss issues which have arisen in cases and to ensure that best practices initiatives can be shared.
Mental health issues in prisons. Discussions have been held between the Auditor-General’s Office, the Department of Corrections and the Ministry of Health. However there is still much to be done to address the issues we raised in last year’s annual report. We will be reviewing this issue again as part of a wider own motion study of the provision, access and availability of health services to prisoners. More positively, in both the Corrections section of this report and in the report of our work under the Crimes of Torture Act (see p 13 and p 29) we note a number of matters on which we have commented to the relevant agencies and which, in some cases, have resulted in changes to process or practice.
Public Records Act. The importance of good record keeping in supporting good administrative practice and transparency can never be overstated. We continue to work with Archives New Zealand in promoting understanding and awareness of the legal requirements the Public Records Act imposes on state sector agencies.
Immigration. This sector continues to provide challenges and takes up a significant amount of the Office’s limited resources.