Saturday, November 27

New Zealanders frustrated by the way government agencies are held accountable, study finds

New Zealanders are frustrated with the way government agencies are held accountable, and a change is needed to reconnect the public sector with those it serves.

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Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The reform would require a fundamental shift from what is important to the public sector to what is important to Parliament and the public, according to a discussion paper of the auditor general’s office.

Many staff members said their accountability relationships were complicated and disjointed. One public sector interviewee told investigators that public officials were not held accountable “in any logical way” and another described the system as clumsy and isolated.

“People who worked in the public sector told us that although the system had strengths, it was not working as well as it could,” says the document, released 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 organizations should value their relationships with communities as much as their relationships with ministers. Government personnel were interviewed and the public was 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 the central government.

“One person said, when it comes to meeting central government accountability requirements, ‘There are so many branches of government and parts of this organization 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 of those who worked in regional areas of New Zealand considered their relationship of responsibility to be primarily with their communities and took pride in maintaining those strong local ties.

“One person said that, for the Maori, there were two main purposes: one is obviously for their financial governance [and] management, obtaining results. But there is also that responsibility that you have to face … your people to account for the general administration of your function, not just money. “

Respondents viewed the annual reports as compliance-driven, overly technical, not convenient or accessible, and not easily supportive of public comment or discussion. Agencies could adopt citizen-centered principles of relevance, responsiveness and accessibility, co-producing accountability measures with stakeholders, he said.

Ongoing reforms, including a greater focus on welfare support, improving select committee procedures, and improving the way public organizations work with Maori, could change that.

The size of the parliament meant that MPs sometimes “stretched slightly” in multiple committees, and might consider using technologies, such as the vTaiwan online platform, to enhance public participation and rational debate 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 results that are important to all New Zealanders. Greater transparency and better reporting would be helpful. However, to provide public accountability , public organizations must understand what is important to Parliament and the public. “

Effective public accountability should put New Zealanders ‘front and center’, it said, proposing five steps:

  • develop well-informed relationships
  • set clear goals
  • provide meaningful, appropriate and accessible information
  • Establish the appropriate forums for discussion and debate.
  • and agree on a set of relevant consequences that encourage the correct behaviors.

The consequences were the “elephant in the room” for those working in the public sector, and appropriate incentives or sanctions must be used. “For Parliament and the public, the consequences can also be seen as the final, and sometimes the most fundamental, step in the implementation of public accountability.”

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