Annual Report 2010/2011

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The past year has seen consolidation of our efforts to improve work practices within the Office and improve our service to complainants and agencies.  The final tranche of work to complete the restructuring and renewal of the Office will take place early in the 2011/2012 financial year.

Alongside this, considerable effort has been devoted to reducing the backlog of cases and coping with the outfall from a spike in the number of complaints received over the past two years.  We have fielded complaints about delays in our response times, but complainants would generally like us to be thorough in our examination of their issues rather than simply faster. Where urgency is required we can and do endeavour to give such cases priority.

The statistics reflect a slight drop in the number of complaints received, these have been largely in the prison jurisdiction in mostly minor matters (of which there are a considerable number each year).  They have resulted from our efforts to deal with these issues more effectively at first instance.  Also, we have temporarily suspended our outreach clinics because of the pressure on our limited resources.  This has also reduced the number of complaints received but risks leaving causes of citizen grievance unaddressed.  The substantive cases on hand, and the work on some of the longstanding and apparently intractable matters continues to stretch our investigators.  They are still experiencing very high caseloads with the attendant stress that this causes.  We have engaged a small number of highly experienced former and retired staff to assist with the very complex cases, but that is not financially sustainable over the medium term given current constraints on our budget. Like other agencies we also face high and increasing charges for what one might call the basic housekeeping costs. Unlike other agencies we are reliant on temporary funding to meet these costs and have been for several years.  Our budget has no capacity to absorb these without the temporary funding.

In spite of the challenges we face in meeting our statutory objectives, we believe we have nonetheless continued to make a real difference in improving trust in government through improved policy and practice within the wider state sector and in illuminating maladministration which can put vulnerable citizens at risk.  There is no doubt that we could do even better with adequate resources.  This annual report illustrates some of the cases including own motion and special investigations where the intervention of the Ombudsmen has resulted in changes for the better or improvement in the fair, just and transparent delivery of services to ordinary citizens.  This is undoubtedly the area where the Office can make its best contribution.

Canterbury earthquakes

In 2010/11, the ongoing earthquakes in Canterbury had a significant impact on the lives, livelihoods and homes of thousands of New Zealanders.  People had to rely on a range of state sector agencies for all kinds of support and assistance they might not otherwise have required.  It was a true test of our disaster preparedness, and the ability of core public services and the agencies that deliver them to respond to a crisis situation.

We were affected by the earthquakes in the sense that we have an office and seven staff operating out of Christchurch.  Our office in the Forsyth Barr Building was deemed unfit for occupation after the February earthquake, and it was necessary to secure new premises in Harewood. Our staff have shown huge commitment to the Office and our complainants by continuing to perform their duties in the face of often adverse personal circumstances. 

We would particularly like to record our thanks to John Haynes who organised the safe exit of staff from the Forsyth Barr Building after the internal stairway collapsed and to Greg Price and Peter Brocklehurst for their bravery in re-entering the building at a later date to retrieve the office files, and their efforts to find and fit out the new office premises.

In the immediate aftermath it was important to support staff so that they could deal with pressing issues related to home and family.  Our Wellington office completed a stock take of the Christchurch office complaint files, and picked up most of the urgent work so that our service to the public could continue as seamlessly as possible.  Urgent complaint files were reconstructed from electronic records in the first instance, until we could be assisted by an Urban Search and Rescue Team to retrieve our original files from the office.

The earthquakes have not, as yet, had any apparent significant impact on complaint numbers.  In 2010/11 we received:

  •  77 complaints against the Earthquake Commission (EQC), 25 of which were made by telephone, and dealt with at the time by providing advice and assistance about how to pursue the matter of concern;
  • three complaints against the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), two of which concerned requests for official information; and

  • three complaints against the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management. 

Complaints against EQC and CERA are being dealt with by our Auckland and Wellington offices respectively, in recognition of the fact that some physical and emotional distance from the issues raised is a necessary part of the objectivity and independence required.  We had discussions with EQC during the reporting year about their complaints process (www.canterbury.eqc.govt.nz/complaints).  Complainants are usually directed to that process in the first instance, unless there is urgency or some other reason preventing them from following that process.

The earthquakes also necessitated the postponement of our biennial complainant survey.  The survey had been scheduled for February, but on the basis that Christchurch based potential respondents had immediate priorities associated with the earthquake and that it may be difficult to contact respondents who have relocated temporarily or permanently, as well as concern that any survey results would be skewed if Christchurch was excluded, it has been deferred to later in 2011. 

In 2010 we took on the role of an independent mechanism under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, with responsibility for protecting and monitoring the implementation of that Convention.  Last year has been spent scoping what this role entails, in collaboration with other independent mechanisms (the Human Rights Commission and the New Zealand Convention Coalition). 

Our role will be carried into effect through the performance of our functions and exercise of our powers under the Ombudsmen Act; that is, by investigating complaints and conducting own motion investigations into matters related to the implementation of the Disabilities Convention. 

In 2010/11 we identified approximately 20 complaints which raised issues relevant to the Disabilities Convention, mainly in the areas of health, education and social services.  These are at various stages of investigation.  We also completed an investigation relating to the Ministry of Health’s home modification policy, and made recommendations aimed at improving that policy.

Operational developments

In 2009/10 we reported a large increase in complaints and enquiries received (10,000 – up eight per cent on 2008/09 numbers, and 11.5 per cent on 2007/08 numbers), and correspondingly, a large increase in the number of open complaints on hand at year’s end (1,720 – up 22.7 per cent on 2008/09 numbers, and 39.5 per cent on 2007/08 numbers).  This year’s numbers have provided some respite, with a total of 8,706 complaints and enquiries received.  However, in the absence of any significant resource increase, it has been necessary to try and identify operational improvements in order to seek to manage the greater workload.

As advised in last year’s annual report, we have introduced a system of prioritising all complaints having regard to urgency and the potential detrimental impact of delay.  This is our first year reporting against the priority settings and timeliness targets set out below: 

Priority J Outside jurisdiction Completed within 1 month of date of receipt
Priority D Within jurisdiction but not investigated Completed within 3 months of date of receipt
Priority 1 Urgent Investigation completed within 4 months of date of receipt
Priority 2 Higher public interest Investigation completed within 6 months of date of receipt
Priority 3 Other Investigation completed within 12 months of date of receipt

 

These priority settings and timeliness targets have been helpful in managing competing demands, and are proving to provide more meaningful information to enable us to track our progress against our budgeted commitments.

We also implemented a strategy aimed at reducing a backlog of complaints that exceeded the targeted completion time for their respective priority setting.  Our immediate goals were to: 

  • reduce the number of cases outside the target timeframe;

  • reduce the age of cases outside the target timeframe;

  • develop a plan for managing the complaints on hand that exceeded the target timeframe; and

  • develop a plan for ensuring that the number of cases assigned to investigators is at a level that enables them to do good quality investigations in a timely manner and which reflects their capacity.

Our long term goal is to ensure that all cases are completed within Office defined targets.    

Our backlog reduction strategy involved a full stocktake of all complaints on hand to identify and prioritise cases requiring urgent attention or assistance to bring them to a conclusion.  We also established a high risk team to investigate complaints requiring urgent attention.  And we began a review of our processes and procedures for the intake and allocation of complaints, and monitoring and reporting of workloads.  Part of this involved learning from the experiences of Ombudsman offices in comparable Australian jurisdictions, such as Western Australia and Victoria. 

These measures enabled us to reduce the number of complaints on hand at 30 June 2011 to 1,359 – a decrease of 21 per cent on the previous year.

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