Annual Report 2012/2013 - full report

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This year, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Ombudsman in New Zealand. We also observed the 30th anniversary of the Official Information Act 1982, and the 25th anniversary of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987.  

Our anniversary year has been a period of growth and consolidation. We have taken time to reflect on the significant contribution to our development by all those who have held the office of Ombudsman in the past 50 years. We have also managed an unprecedented increase in demand for our services, drawing on both our traditional practice developed over the previous half century and new ways of prioritising and organising our workflows.       

The Ombudsman concept originated in Scandinavia in the 1800s. The word “Ombudsman” is Swedish, and loosely translated means “grievance person”. It was first used in its modern sense in 1809 when the Swedish Parliament established the office of Justitieombudsman, who was to look after citizens’ interests in their dealings with government. On 1 October 1962, New Zealand was the fourth country in the world, and the first country outside Scandinavia, to appoint an Ombudsman.

When he was sworn in, New Zealand’s first Ombudsman, Sir Guy Powles, described our role as follows:

“The Ombudsman is Parliament’s [person], put there for the protection of the individual, and if you protect the individual, you protect society.”

Sir Guy’s statement rings as true today as it did back then.  Our overall purpose is to 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.

Growing workload

Our services are clearly in demand. For the second year in a row, we received and completed the highest ever number of complaints and other contacts concerning state sector agencies. In particular, we managed significant increases in both official information complaints (92%), and complaints and other contacts relating to the Earthquake Commission (89%).

We continued the structural and procedural changes needed to direct and focus our work towards our new strategic direction, which was established in the previous reporting year. These changes enabled us to apply a systematic approach to addressing the large increase in our incoming work, while still catering for the individual circumstances of each case.

In particular, we have completed the establishment of new workflow structures intended to allow us to more easily move staff resource to an area of identified need. We have set up formal early assistance and early resolution processes within dedicated teams, which have enabled us to deal with the large influx of new complaints more effectively and efficiently.

We have also reviewed the strategic services provided by the staff who guide and support our investigators and inspectors in their work, to ensure we have an overall structure in our Office that is efficient and allows us to effectively implement our new strategic direction.  

The result was that we achieved a 30% increase in our overall work completed this year, despite a 29% increase in incoming work. In particular, although we received 1,427 more complaints than in the previous year, we managed to complete most of these, finishing with only an additional 374 complaints on hand as opposed to last year.

However, the large increase in work has affected the timeliness of our interventions. Our performance this year has not met our expectations for the timeframes within which some types of work should be completed. Even so, our overall performance in this area has remained steady, with 93% of all complaints and other contacts completed within 6 months of receipt.

Parliament has taken steps to begin to address the growing pressures on our Office. During the reporting year, we were able to secure an increase in overall funding for the 2013/14 year onwards, which will enable us to appoint additional investigating staff to progress the growing number of complaints on hand at any one time. 

Wider administrative improvement

Part of our new strategic direction is to have a greater focus on interventions to achieve wider administrative improvement in the state sector. These interventions range from focused investigations of significant and systemic issues, to providing more targeted advice, guidance and training to state sector agencies.

We completed 3 wider administrative improvement investigations in the reporting year, including an investigation of the Ministry of Education’s management of official information requests about proposed Christchurch school closures.  The outcome of this investigation has led us to timetable further wider administrative improvement investigations of:

  • the policy and practice of the Ministry of Education in relation to school closure consultations generally; and
  • overall official information policy and practice in selected government agencies.

We also continued our well-regarded training programme for state sector agencies, and we provided advice and comment on legislative, policy and procedural matters.

Public awareness and guidance

In 2012/13 we undertook our second nationwide public awareness survey, to gauge the level of awareness of our service in the community. Pleasingly, this survey found 72% of the New Zealand public had heard of the Ombudsman.

Following the review of our strategic direction, we also continued work to reposition the Ombudsman as a “modern, independent New Zealand authority, that is agile, proactive and approachable”. In August 2012, we launched a new Ombudsman identity and website. 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. Our new website has been designed to:

  • 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.

During the year, we published on our website 45 new guides, Ombudsman opinions and case notes. In particular, as part of the celebration of our 50th anniversary, we published new guidance on:

  • good decision making;
  • effective complaint handling;
  • managing unreasonable complainant conduct; and
  • making a protected disclosure.

We also published official information topic guides and a guide on using the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.

In November 2012, we were privileged to host the 10th World Conference of the International Ombudsman Institute. Based in Wellington, the theme of the conference was “Speaking Truth to Power – The Ombudsman in the 21st Century”. We welcomed Ombudsmen from 58 countries around the world, providing a forum to meet and share our collective experience and expertise. 

Changing the guard

We farewelled Ombudsman David McGee at the end of May 2013.  Dr McGee’s contribution to the Office over the past 5 and a half years has been invaluable. His areas of responsibility included education, health, accident compensation, transport, foreign affairs and defence, police, conservation, economic development, inland revenue, corrections and local government. Dr McGee has overseen over 15,000 complaints in his time, and most notably reported on the outcome of an investigation with the Chief Ombudsman into the health services available to prisoners, as well as the outcome of his investigations concerning;

  • education agency responses to bullying at Hutt Valley High School; and
  • the Ministry of Education’s management of official information requests about proposed Christchurch school closures. 

We will miss Dr McGee, and wish him well in his retirement.

We welcomed Professor Ron Paterson as our new Ombudsman in June 2013. Professor Paterson brings a wealth of complaint handling skills and relevant experience to the role of Ombudsman.

Prior to taking up Office as an Ombudsman, Professor Paterson was a Professor of Law at the University of Auckland and New Zealand Health and Disability Commissioner from 2000 to 2010. He has previously held positions as Chairman of the New Zealand Banking Ombudsman Scheme and as a member of the Board of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.

When announcing Professor Paterson’s appointment, then Speaker of the House Dr The Rt Hon Lockwood Smith said:

“Professor Paterson is well regarded in New Zealand and overseas for his legal expertise, particularly in the areas of patients’ rights and healthcare quality improvement … With his particular knowledge and experience, Professor Paterson will contribute effectively to the work of the Office of the Ombudsman.”

Overall, this year has been one of reflection and growth. With our long-established complaint handling practices, the structural changes now in place to support our new strategic direction, and the support from Parliament in the form of additional funding, we are better placed to meet the challenges of the future and provide effective interventions to ensure people are treated fairly in New Zealand.

This annual report highlights some of the cases where our intervention has resulted in changes for the better or improvement in the fair, just and transparent delivery of services to the public. This is the area where we can make our best contribution.

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