Annual Report 2016/2017

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New Zealand was the fourth country in the world to appoint an Ombudsman. Sir Guy Powles presented his first Annual Report to Parliament in 1962; he had two full-time staff, oversight of 66 central government agencies, and 142 complaints to deal with during his first year in office.

Fifty-five years later, we now have oversight of 4000 public sector agencies. At the end of this reporting year we had 101 people working for us in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington, and in the last year we completed 12 141 complaints and other work.

Our functions today are much broader than could have been envisaged in 1962. They include ensuring freedom of information for citizens, protecting the human rights of people who are detained and people who have disabilities, supporting people who wish to make protected disclosures, resolving systemic issues across the public sector and promoting good decision making and transparency.

One very real measure of our success is that in 2016/17 we achieved 700 remedies for New Zealanders—‘remedy’ being the legal term for a solution to a problem. This is an increase of 20 percent on the previous year, one of many positive figures in this year’s Annual Report. We also had 149 recommendations for improvement in places of detention accepted.  

Sometimes a remedy is an apology for an agency’s mishandling of a process or decision. Sometimes it is a reversal of an unfair decision, or the release of official information that had been withheld. A remedy can involve a change in government policy in the interests of fairness for all, or an agency providing better processes or training for staff so administrative problems won’t be repeated.

Here are a very few examples of the remedies and improvements we achieved in 2016/17.

  • Schools are no longer putting children in seclusion rooms to manage their behaviour. At my request, the Secretary of Education wrote to all schools prohibiting the use of seclusion when I started an investigation into the use of seclusion rooms at two primary schools.
  • The Department of Corrections has agreed to review its policies of strip searching every prisoner after a visit, filming prisoners in At-Risk Units while they are using the bathroom, and not providing privacy screens in At-Risk Units, in response to my recommendations following unannounced prison inspections.
  • The Department has also reduced its use of tie-down beds in prisons and is reviewing its overall use of mechanical restraints, after the release of our ground-breaking report A question of restraint.
  • A father who is the full-time caregiver for his severely disabled adult son had his Family Funded Care payments restored to 40 hours a week, after his hours were cut on an unreasonable basis.
  • Canterbury schools and communities received a public apology from the Ministry of Education for its mishandling of the school closures and mergers process following the 2011 earthquake, identified in our comprehensive report Disclosure. Work is underway to ensure the same mistakes aren’t repeated elsewhere.
  • Following a complaint to me, the Police released a tactical operations report from a taser incident.

Whether a report on a former prisoner’s compensation claim, the results of a local government agency staff satisfaction survey or a tactical operations report, our role is to make sure New Zealanders can get the official information they are entitled to, unless there is good reason to withhold it.

In 2016/17, we consistently exceeded our targets for the timeliness and clearance rate of complaints, advice and other work. We achieved my ambitious early resolution goal of completing at least 70 percent of new complaints within three months. We also reduced our backlog of aged complaints by almost two thirds, so that we are now tracking to complete the backlog by 30 June 2018, one year ahead of schedule. People who approach us for help are getting faster resolution.

We’re also continuing to work with public sector agencies to improve their official information practices and response times, and I’m really encouraged by the willingness of agencies to lift their game. A particular highlight this year was our publication of the first set of detailed data about complaints received under the Official Information Act, and their outcome.

Another highlight of the year was New Zealand’s restoration to first place (equal with Denmark) in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. The Chief Ombudsman is determined that we will stay up there.

Finally, this year the Chief Ombudsman has continued to create the structure and processes that will ensure we are well positioned for the challenges ahead. This includes a new senior management structure, as well as organising our operational teams into two groups, the Complaints Resolution Group with a clear focus on quick and effective complaint handling, and the Compliance and Practice Group with a clear focus on proactive interventions to achieve systemic change.

We’re having an impact in more areas and on more lives, more New Zealanders know about us, and more are using our information and services. The Ombudsman is a growing and robust institution in New Zealand, and we are more relevant than ever in today’s world.

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