Annual Report 2017/2018
In the past year, we have made some excellent progress in key areas, none more so than by clearing our backlog of complaints, a bugbear both for us and the public. We have been quicker and more efficient in resolving complaints, but with no reduction in the quality or efficacy of our work. Specific cases we have dealt with this year are contained in this report, and they showcase the breadth and depth of the work we are tasked to undertake.
Our functions today are much broader than could have been envisaged when the Office opened 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.
To that end, New Zealanders have the right to expect a lot from us. They want us to resolve complaints as early as possible; they want us to be assertive yet helpful; they should feel confident that any complaint will be dealt with fairly, robustly and confidentially.
It is not too much to ask.
As an Office we must constantly change to meet these and future demands. Some of the changes we have made over the past year have been largely unseen by the public such as developing an IT infrastructure, the regrouping of teams to increase efficiency and our continually evolving risk management framework. But all of them made us better prepared to carry out our mandate.
Others were more overt. We have significantly raised our public profile through the release of our investigations, by our extensive training and assistance for government agencies, and, as of next year, our work inspecting places of detention in private age care facilities will allow us to monitor the treatment of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
Another important role we play is in the international ombudsman community, and during 2017/18, this has been especially evident in the Pacific. And while the Office is very highly regarded overseas, and parts of our work are often used as templates for other countries, we are not complacent – we are keen not only to share with others, but to learn from them.
A highlight of the year was New Zealand’s attaining first place in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. There are many people and organisations to credit for achieving this, and we have a significant role to play in ensuring the public sector is held to account, and that it is fair and transparent. New Zealanders should rightly expect to be able to fully participate in the democratic system, safe in the knowledge that the tenet of disclosure rather than secrecy is enshrined in legislation. That, alas, is something that cannot be said in many other countries.
This year marked the 35th anniversary of the Official Information Act, and the 30th anniversary of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act coming in to force.
Despite the longevity of these two pieces of legislation, both are just as relevant today as they were when enacted. Both are still lynchpins of openness and accountability in our democracy, and both have been influenced by many factors such as MMP, public sector reform, and the ways agencies deliver services, and interact with New Zealanders.
There are two crucial elements here. First, it is incumbent on us to keep abreast of changing societal, policy and legislative requirements. Second, change requires our Office and all government agencies to deal with the spirit of the Acts, not just the words on the page so that they are relevant, and decisions made reflect what is expected.
The public’s expectations of the breadth of information they believe should be readily accessible, the forms it takes, and speed at which that information is delivered are all changing.
Our task in the coming months and years, is to manage those expectations, in a way that is current for the time they being dealt with. Another challenge we face is promoting the principle of availability, often through proactive release of information, and encouraging agencies to answer the question “Why shouldn’t I release this information?”, as opposed to asking “Why should I release this information?”. For many this is a quantum leap, but we are already seeing some of the more progressive agencies reaping the benefits of such as approach.
The Chief Ombudsman would like to pay tribute to Leo Donnelly who left the Office of the Ombudsman on 29 June, having served for 35 years, the final two as an Ombudsman. His dedication to his roles and to this Office were exemplary.