Annual Report 2015/2016 - full report

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Just before she concluded her term as Chief Ombudsman in December 2015, Dame Beverley Wakem published her seminal report on central government compliance with the Official Information Act 1982, entitled Not a game of hide and seek. It was a poignant way to end. Dame Beverley was able to reflect on how this constitutionally important Act was working, and being applied, and at the same time set out a roadmap for future improvement and work.

When I commenced as Chief Ombudsman on 10 December 2015, I knew that the fundamentals of good compliance were acknowledged, but I also knew that I had plenty to do to get this Act working better.

In addition to that challenge, I saw an office submerged in work and not always handling its expectations of time in assisting people. I noted that there was a substantial backlog of aged files which had not been resolved, sometimes for a number of years. But, more critically, we had too many unallocated files simply waiting their place in the queue to receive attention. I knew that we had to change our approach to our work.

For the first six months in my position, and therefore the second half of the year in respect of which this report applies, I absorbed the messages from staff but, just as importantly, those from the outside who rely on us to do our job promptly and efficiently, and I felt growing reassurance that change was inevitable.

As a result of a visit to Australia in February 2016, I learned that many Australian Ombudsman and Information Commissioner offices have faced similar challenges.  They have changed their approach and methodology so as to achieve very quick front-end disposition, and ensure that the really hard cases that need considerable work can receive this but in a timely fashion. I began to think that no case that this office accepted should remain outstanding beyond 12 months from receipt. As other models were achieving fast results by changed techniques, I felt that achieving resolution of 70% of our complaints within three months was feasible.

We have already begun to make great strides in the 2015/16 reporting year. Despite overall intake once again increasing, we completed 7% more work than last year and finished the year with 11% less work on hand than at the same time last year. Our overall net clearance rate for complaints was 105%, meaning that we closed 178 more complaints than we received, and so started to make significant inroads into our backlog of aged complaints.

Our timeliness figures for 2015/16 also bode well for the future, with 58% of all complaints completed within 3 months and 85% completed within 12 months. Early resolution, particularly in the official information area, has seen a dramatic increase this year. Overall, we resolved 25% of official information complaints and, importantly, we resolved 54% more complaints without needing to undertake a formal investigation than in the 2014/15 year. Our practices around Ombudsmen Act complaints are already very tight, with only 10% proceeding to a formal investigation, and so the real area of efficiency gain for us will be in respect of official information complaints.

I regard the support of Treasury, Parliament and the Speaker as heavily influencing our ability to achieve change. The Officers of Parliament Select Committee completely supported the initiatives I felt we needed to take and ensured that we were adequately resourced to do so in the coming year 2016-17. And so, we have the belief and the basis to now make change and to provide an even better service for New Zealanders for the future.

Systemic interventions

Our office does not just handle complaints about administrative decision making and requests for official information. We also undertake a number of systemic interventions with the aim of contributing to wider administrative improvement in the state sector.   

Along with major self-initiated investigations, we provide advice, guidance and training to state sector agencies and the wider public. Demand on us in these areas continues to increase, with requests for us to provide 89 formal training sessions and presentations doubling the demand compared to last year. We also experienced an ongoing increase in requests by agencies for informal advice, particularly on the processing of official information requests, and we gave such advice on 199 separate occasions this year.

We also saw a three-fold increase in our interventions to provide advice to agencies on 65 legislative, policy and administrative proposals, and a dramatic increase of 72 requests from the Ministry of Transport for our advice on statutory applications for authorised access to personal information on the motor vehicle register.

We published 37 new guidance materials this reporting year, including a suite of 9 comprehensive new official information guides as part of an ongoing project to review, develop and update our guidance in this area. In addition, we published a ground-breaking guide to Reasonable accommodation of persons with disabilities in New Zealand. All of these guides have been very well received by our stakeholders.  

UN monitoring

The office, under official designation from Parliament, inspects certain places of detention in New Zealand, especially prisons and mental health facilities, to ensure against cruel and inhuman treatment. Our task is to ensure that people who have to be detained in these places are met with standards of care which New Zealand regards as acceptable.

So also is the case with New Zealanders who have disabilities. Our office monitors implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and, I think, makes a fundamental contribution to policy and the implementation of proper, acceptable facilities and approaches.

There are two aspects of this work that I should highlight. The first is that the plight of those who are detained, and who are mentally unwell, is concerning. We have become increasingly concerned at the inadequacy of appropriate facilities, especially for prisoners who have high mental health needs. It is an issue I intend to pursue in the new reporting year with the relevant agencies. So, also, is my concern about the vulnerability of those detained in privately run dementia units, and who presently appear to have no independent oversight in the same way that publicly funded institutional patients have. The anomaly is worthy of careful discussion.

Our protected disclosures role

For the sake of completeness, I mention our role under the Protected Disclosures Act. We are a place that people can turn to if they feel that their complaint to an agency about improper conduct has not been taken seriously.

Our constitutional role

It can be seen that in all of these respects, the Office of the Ombudsman occupies a place of considerable constitutional importance. For New Zealand to be respected internationally for its good government, integrity and transparency, requires the independence and the oversight that this office is expected to provide. It is my intention to ensure that we do this to the highest standard.

But the change that there will be, is in the way that we will work. We have to work electronically so as to keep our work moving in a way that is expected in the present environment. Not only internally, but externally, we must work according to timeframes that are modern and geared to promptness and efficiency.

It follows that we must put much greater emphasis on early resolution whenever that can be achieved. There will always be cases that require a good deal of time and thought because of the issues they raise. They may be constitutionally important. However, there are many other cases that can and should be resolved in a quicker, business-like fashion.  If the office is to work according to a proper sense of time, and by that I mean reasonable expectations of when we will complete our work, change in this respect is essential.

I would like to think that, in this way, those that come to us regard us as relevant and helpful. That is not to say always accommodating, but rather that the integrity and oversight that we bring to processes will be undertaken more quickly, so that actions we take, or recommendations we make, are directly relevant.

I reflect on what a very great privilege it is to head this office, and to succeed such distinguished past Chief Ombudsmen. My wish is that, as the office now proceeds, we continue to fulfil our place in the good government of New Zealand and that we do it fairly, firmly, and efficiently.

Farewell to Dame Beverley Wakem and Professor Ron Paterson

In the reporting year, we said farewell to both Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem and Ombudsman Professor Ron Paterson. They have both contributed significantly to the history and work of the office and I wish them the very best for the future.

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