25 Oct 2021

New Zealanders frustrated at how govt agencies are held to account, study finds

8:31 pm on 25 October 2021

New Zealanders are frustrated at how government agencies are held to account, with change needed to reconnect the public sector with those it serves.

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Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Reform would require a fundamental shift away from what is important for the public sector towards what is important for Parliament and the public, according to a discussion document from the auditor general's office.

Many staff said their accountability relationships were complicated and disjointed. A public sector interviewee told researchers public servants were not held to account 'in any logical fashion' and another described the system as clunky and siloed.

"People who worked in the public sector told us that, although the system had strengths, it was not working as well as it could," said the document, published on Thursday. "In many ways, the public accountability system has become disconnected from the public. It is seen by many as compliance-driven and provides little useful information about what is important to Parliament and the public."

Auditor-General John Ryan said public organisations should value their relationships with communities as much as their relationships with ministers. Government staff were interviewed and the public were surveyed about their views.

"Many of those who worked outside of Wellington, including in local government, did not feel they had a constructive or informed accountability relationship with central government.

"One person said, when talking about complying with central government accountability requirements, 'there's so many branches of government and parts of this organisation are effectively accountable to different parts … the government is like this great hydra'.

"Another person said, 'I think Wellington just blocks … every inch of the way'. Many who worked in regional areas of New Zealand considered their accountability relationship was primarily with their communities and they took pride in maintaining those strong local ties.

"One person said that, for Māori, there were two main purposes: One is obviously for your financial governance [and] management, getting outcomes. But there is also that accountability that you have to front ... to your people to account for your overall stewardship of your role, not just the money."

Interviewees saw annual reports as compliance driven, overly technical, not convenient or accessible, and not easily supporting public feedback or debate. Agencies could adopt citizen-focused principles of relevance, responsiveness, and accessibility, co-producing accountability measures with stakeholders, it said.

Reforms under way, including an increased focus on supporting wellbeing, improved select committee procedures and improving how public organisations work with Māori, might change that.

Parliament's size meant MPs were sometimes "stretched thinly" across multiple committees, and they could consider using technologies - such as online platform vTaiwan - to improve public participation and rational discussion on national issues.

"The public sector needs to better communicate to Parliament and the public what it does, why it does it, and how it contributes to outcomes that are important for all New Zealanders. More transparency and improved reporting would be helpful. However, to provide effective public accountability, public organisations need to understand what is important to Parliament and the public."

Effective public accountability should put New Zealanders 'front and centre', it said, and proposed five steps:

  • developing well-informed relationships
  • setting clear objectives
  • providing meaningful, appropriate and accessible information
  • establishing the right forums for discussion and debate
  • and agreeing a set of relevant consequences that encourage the right behaviours.

Consequences were the "elephant in the room" for those who work in the public sector, and appropriate incentives or sanctions should be used. "For Parliament and the public, consequences can also be seen as the final, and sometimes the most fundamental, step in public accountability being carried out."

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