Annual Report 2011/2012 - full report
In many ways, 2011/12 was a watershed year for us.
We received and completed the highest ever number of complaints and other contacts concerning state sector agencies. In particular, we managed a significant increase in official information complaints and complaints relating to the Earthquake Commission.
We also finalised a major review of our purpose and strategic direction, establishing a strong outcomes framework to direct and focus our work towards the outcomes and impacts we are seeking to achieve. The results of this work can be seen in our 2012/15 Statement of Intent.
We have defined our purpose as the following:
“We investigate, review and inspect the administrative conduct of state sector agencies, and provide advice and guidance, in order to ensure people are treated fairly in New Zealand”.
The overall outcome we are seeking to achieve is that “A high level of public trust in government is maintained”. The impacts we want to have are:
improved administration and decision making in state sector agencies;
official information is increasingly available and the public is assured access is not denied unnecessarily;
serious wrongdoing is brought to light and investigated by appropriate authorities; and
people in detention are treated humanely.
In 2011/12, we completed our second survey of the complainants and agencies that we interact with, enabling us for the first time to compare feedback over time on the service we provide. We also undertook our first nationwide public awareness survey, to gauge the level of awareness of our service in the community. Pleasingly, this survey found 69 per cent of the New Zealand public had heard of the Ombudsman.
Our work monitoring and inspecting places of detention under the Crimes of Torture Act fully matured this year, with scoping visits to some of the 161 aged care facilities with dementia units that we have identified as possibly coming within our jurisdiction, and the international community increasingly looking to benefit from our experience in this area as a whole. We also completed scoping our role as an independent mechanism protecting and monitoring implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, establishing a joint monitoring and reporting framework with the other independent mechanisms (the New Zealand Convention Coalition and the Human Rights Commission).
We have reviewed our work processes in light of the pressures we are facing, and we have developed better and smarter ways to manage our work in a process of continuous practice improvement. We have identified ways to make our complaints handling process more effective and efficient, which will enable us to:
cope better with the complaints we have on hand; and
identify and address wider systemic issues in the state sector in a more focused and systematic way.
We also continued work on a major consolidation of our human resources policies and procedures, and progressive implementation of a revised performance review and professional development system for staff.
We have improved our data collection this year. We treat matters as formal “complaints” once they have been put in writing. However, we also deal with a large number of oral complaints and enquiries from members of the public, mainly over the telephone or by prison visit, prior to a complaint being made to us in writing. While we term these matters “other contacts”, our staff spend a significant amount of time providing advice and assistance, and resolving these matters. For the first time in the 2011/12 year, we have:
recorded data about complaints and other contacts separately; and
collected more detailed data as to the nature and outcome of the complaints and other contacts we have dealt with.
This has enabled us to better demonstrate the types of administrative deficiencies we are identifying in the state sector, as well as the outcomes we are achieving for the benefit of both individual complainants and public administration as a whole. By contributing to wider administrative improvement in the state sector, we can help to reduce downstream costs overall, caused by poor decision making and ineffective administrative processes.
Following the review of our purpose and strategic direction, we also worked over the reporting year on repositioning the Ombudsman as a “modern, independent New Zealand authority, that is agile, proactive and approachable”. We began publishing topic guides and Ombudsman
opinions on our website, which articulate principles of general application in relation to frequently recurring or significant issues. We also developed a new Ombudsman identity and website, with the launch in August 2012. Our work in this area reflects the fact that the way complainants find out about and interact with us is changing, with increasing use of new technology, including internet and email. Fifty-nine per cent of complainants we surveyed in 2011/12 had visited our website. This accords with our nationwide public awareness survey which showed that 77 per cent of people would use the internet to find out what we do.
Our new website has been designed to both:
inform the public about our role, when we can help and to make it easy to approach us; and
provide a platform to build resources and guidance for both the public and state sector agencies.
We completed or continued work this year on a number of major investigations targeted at significant or systemic issues, including:
prisoner health services;
decision making by Immigration New Zealand around Pacific residence quotas;
requests for information concerning the mixed ownership model; and
requests for lists of reports sent by agencies to Ministers.
In addition, a number of cases we considered raised issues around effective complaints handling in the first instance by state sector agencies. We have worked to provide guidance to agencies in this area. We have also explored new ways of handling complaints ourselves, particularly where a large number of complaints received in a particular area meant that we needed to develop structured and systematic ways to resolve complaints quickly and in a way that meets the needs of complainants, but with the least impact on both our own and agency resources.
We have spent 2011/12 setting up new workflow structures that will allow us to more easily move staff resource to an area of identified need. We are establishing formal early assistance and early resolution processes within dedicated teams, with a view to dealing with complaints more effectively and efficiently. This approach is already paying off, allowing us to cope better with the unprecedented levels of complaints and other contacts received this year. However, the pressure on staff remains intense and is unsustainable in the long run.
We are also taking a planned, strategic approach in particular sectors, in order to identify issues and areas for development and to ensure a consistent and well-managed approach by staff working in each area. In addition, we are examining ways in which we can more effectively contribute to wider administrative improvement in the state sector. In 2011/12, we continued our well-regarded training programme for state sector agencies and we provided advice and comment on legislative, policy and procedural matters. We also reviewed our structure to allow for the appointment of a Senior Advisor with a specific focus on investigations of significant or systemic issues to promote wider administrative improvement.
Overall, this year has been one of growth and change, leaving us better placed to meet the challenges of the future and provide effective interventions to improve public administration and ensure people are treated fairly in New Zealand.
However, we are still significantly under resourced. Whilst we have managed to increase our throughput to deal with the increasing number of complaints and other contacts we are receiving, we are struggling to meet some of our timeliness targets and there has been an impact in terms of the work we have on hand at any one time. This has risen from around 1,000 complaints and other contacts in 2008/09 to around 1,700 today. We currently have approximately 300 complaints on hand that we do not have the resources to immediately progress. We do keep these matters under review so that anything that becomes urgent can be given priority.
The current work pressure we are facing has led to a declining satisfaction with our service in survey results. Expectations of our service are also changing. Complainants expecting a good standard of service before they approached us rose from 88 per cent in 2008/09 to 92 per cent in 2011/12. We have been able to meet many of these expectations in terms of the quality of our communication, with 70 per cent of complainants agreeing in 2011/12 that we are easy to understand. However, there is less satisfaction with our timeliness in responding, with only 53 per cent of complainants agreeing in 2011/12 that we are timely. Overall satisfaction with our standard of service has dropped, from 66 per cent in 2008/09 to 55 per cent in 2011/12.
Complainant’s concerns are reflected in the responses from state sector agencies, with 88 per cent of agencies surveyed in 2011/12 satisfied with our communication overall, but only 37 per cent of agencies agreeing that we provide timely responses. However, the proportion of agencies satisfied the Ombudsmen’s views are fair has remained relatively steady, moving from 76 per cent in 2008/09 to 73 per cent in 2011/12.
In spite of the challenges we face, we believe we have nonetheless continued to make a real difference in maintaining a high level of public trust in government. There is no doubt that we could do even better with adequate resources. This annual report illustrates some of the cases where the intervention of the Ombudsman has resulted in changes for the better or improvement in the fair, just and transparent delivery of services to the public. This is undoubtedly the area where we can make our best contribution.