Chief Ombudsman's Annual Report 2022/2023
Excerpt from Introduction
This year I have intensified my efforts to reach out to diverse communities around New Zealand. I have also continued my work to help lift good practices across government. This balance between the public and government is an important part of my independent role as an Officer of Parliament, and the need for me to reach out to both has become even more evident in current times.
Like the world as a whole, New Zealand is dealing with many challenges, including the flow-on effects of the pandemic, the cost of living, issues of identity and (mis)information, and extreme weather events.
As Chief Ombudsman, I play my part in our democracy through a range of activities aimed at safeguarding the rights of people and promoting government accountability and transparency. My oversight can help to identify and resolve problems, as well as provide assurance through impartial inquiry when something is going well. It is important during times of crisis that people feel confident they are being treated fairly and that government is held to account.
It has become increasingly clear that for me to be truly effective, people from all walks of life need to know about my role and feel comfortable coming to me when they need to, whether they are a member of the public or part of government. This means I need to reach out to talk to a wide variety of people about my role, and understand their perspectives and how I can be most accessible to them.
To this end, my staff and I undertook a series of engagements across the country this year with community groups, government agencies and iwi, including in hard-hit areas such as Gisborne, the East Coast, Hawke’s Bay and Auckland. I also engaged with a wide range of people involved in the Oranga Tamariki system, and specialist bodies for older and younger people and disabled people. I have made an effort to nurture existing relationships and establish new ones, and to understand how I can assist to provide fairness for all in these troubled times. My engagements have focused on listening to issues of concern and interest, and sharing information about my role.
The challenges people are facing are evident in the ongoing high number of complaints I am receiving. Over the year I received the second highest number of complaints ever, exceeding the number received in the years following the Canterbury earthquakes and the early pandemic period. Overall, complaints received in 2022/23 were 46 percent higher than the average number received in the four years prior to the pandemic. I completed 5,807 complaints, and achieved 1,391 remedies for complainants and in improvements to government practices and systems.
This year, legislative changes came into effect giving me enhanced powers to investigate and monitor Oranga Tamariki and its care or custody providers. Demand for my services in this area continues to grow significantly year on year. I have focused on enhancing my complaints-handling practices to be child-centric, and tikanga and trauma informed, and improving my accessibility through improved information and engagement.
I also continued my programme of learning and advice for government agencies, as well as making submissions on policy and legislative issues, to try and lift good practice.
I published two self-initiated investigation reports this year. Ready or not? reported on my investigation into 12 government agencies’ official information practices, and considered the resilience of these practices during the pandemic. Kia Whaitake: Making a Difference reported on my systemic investigation into Ara Poutama Aotearoa – Department of Corrections. I identified challenges the Department faces in achieving significant and sustained improvements for people in prison, and made recommendations to address those.
I also completed 101 visits and inspections to various places of detention. I identified concerns ranging from workforce issues and the conditions of facilities, to over-occupancy and the application of legal safeguards to protect against arbitrary detention. I made 67 recommendations for improvement to conditions and treatment.
As part of the Independent Monitoring Mechanism under the Disability Convention, I participated in the examination of New Zealand by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This resulted in Concluding Observations from the Committee about how New Zealand can improve and make disability rights real.
I also saw increasing demand from whistle-blowers raising concerns about serious wrongdoing in their workplace. In 2022/23, I received 128 protected disclosures and enquiries, an 80 percent increase from the previous year.
I am grateful to my staff who have worked hard and supported me over this year. I benefit hugely from their unwavering dedication to the role, kind and professional approach, and intellectual fire power. Their efforts have helped me meet the challenges this year has brought, so I can continue to raise issues as I see them to highlight the impact on people of government actions, and to promote accountability and transparency.
This year marks 60 years since the role of Ombudsman was first established in New Zealand. In October 1962 our first Ombudsman, Sir Guy Powles, promised to look for ‘reason, justice, sympathy and honour’. More than half a century later, and in very different times, my focus remains the same.