Part 2: Organisational matters

Inquiry into the Plumbers, Gasfitters, and Drainlayers Board: Follow-up report.

In this Part, we report on the progress that the Board has made in the last three years on the problems identified in Parts 2 and 9 of our 2010 report. These problems related to:

Our 2010 report was critical. Among other things, it revealed:

  • a lack of clear or comprehensive operational policies to guide and explain the way the Board gave effect to its statutory tasks;
  • inadequate policy and strategic capacity, so the Board had not been able to ensure that its legal and regulatory environment had kept pace with needs;
  • poor relationships with other organisations;
  • a Board struggling with the effects of high turnover, and with the challenge of carrying out a high disciplinary workload; and
  • an unhealthy organisational culture, with unhappy staff and a lack of openness and accountability to the trades that fund the Board and that it regulates.

Summary of progress

In 2013, we found a significantly changed and improved organisation, which had largely delivered a challenging programme of work to remedy the problems that we had found during our original inquiry. The Board had rebuilt many relationships. The Board still faces some challenges, and some of the changes it has made are relatively recent. The Board has addressed the majority of the legality problems we found in 2010, although a few remain and present a risk to the Board and its reputation.

We saw much less to concern us during our follow-up work than we did in the period preceding our 2010 report. Problems were fewer, as the Board had addressed many legacy issues. The number of complaints was small, and very few were about recent matters. Consultation with the industry had become more robust, and the Board had rebuilt its working relationships with all but one organisation. Staff reported a healthier organisational culture. The Board had gone far towards being more transparent and had enjoyed a stable period of Board membership.

Our 2010 report made two recommendations on organisational matters, but commented on several other aspects. Figure 1 summarises the progress against the recommendations, with further detailed findings in paragraphs 2.6-2.54.

Figure 1
The Board's progress in addressing recommendations 14 and 15

We recommended that the Plumbers, Gasfitters, and Drainlayers Board:Progress by the end of 2013Relevant paragraphs in this report
14 … establish a simple and effective complaints process for tradespeople who are unhappy with a particular Board decision or action, so that there is an accessible and transparent mechanism for getting a prompt review of a decision or action. Complete 2.40-2.45
15 … establish an immediate and short-term process for considering and resolving grievances arising from Board decisions that may have wrongly disadvantaged a tradesperson. Complete 2.46-2.51

Organisational culture

The Board is now more open and transparent than it was and communication has improved. Positive changes include more frequent publishing of its Info brief newsletter, with a mix of news, features, and information. Reader satisfaction with Info brief is high at 92%, but four in 10 tradespeople say they do not read it.1 Board members have organised open meetings throughout the country to hear from tradespeople directly. The Board's website is clearer and policies are easy to access.2

The Board has an Output Agreement that sets out what it is accountable for to the Minister of Building and Construction. The Board publishes the Output Agreement on its website. The Board's Annual Plan, which is also on the website, reports progress against the agreement.

The Board is better at consulting tradespeople than it was in 2009. Consultation occurs when it is considering making major changes to the way it carries out some of its functions. More information accompanies consultation invitations and the rationale behind proposals is better explained. The Board puts the replies it gets, with an analysis of matters raised, on its website. However, satisfaction with the way the Board communicates its final decisions fell to 54% in the 2014 National Research Bureau (NRB) survey, from 60% in 2013. This could suggest that the Board over-relies on its website and Info brief as methods of communication. Alternatively, the lower satisfaction score could reflect people disagreeing with the outcome, irrespective of how the Board communicated its decisions.

We saw evidence of the Board modifying proposals and decisions after consulting tradespeople. This shows that the Board is listening to the opinions it receives. For example, the Board has decided not to put in place a plan for random audits of tradespeople as a way of assessing competency. The Board considered that it did not have the support of the trade after consultation on the proposal.

We met staff from all parts of the Board's secretariat. All staff had a clear understanding of their role and reported an improved working environment. They felt better supported by policies, information, and their managers than before. Although the conversations they have with some tradespeople can still be challenging, confrontational exchanges happen less often.

Staff considered that the Board and managers had been overwhelmed by how much needed fixing immediately. As a result, good project management was sometimes sacrificed. For example, some staff were concerned that the Board acted too quickly at times and in doing so laid the organisation open to unnecessary criticism. Staff mentioned the way that the continuing professional development (CPD) scheme was introduced as one example of this. The consensus of staff was that they felt that there was now more space to be proactive and to manage projects well from start to finish.

Relationships with other organisations in the sector have significantly improved. During our follow-up, we spoke to representatives from:

  • the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment (MBIE);
  • the Skills Organisation (the successor body to the Plumbing, Gasfitting, and Drainlayers training organisation);
  • Master Plumbers, Gasfitters & Drainlayers NZ (Master Plumbers); and
  • the Plumbers, Gasfitters, and Drainlayers Federation (the Federation).

MBIE, the Skills Organisation, and Master Plumbers report improved relationships and a willingness by the Board to be involved in discussions about the industry. This is a marked improvement from when the Board had become increasingly isolated.

The chief executive, the head of the Board's secretariat, now communicates regularly with MBIE. For example, there have been recent discussions on allegations of unlicensed and unregulated work taking place in Christchurch. The Board has also discussed matters arising from the Act with MBIE.

The Board has been working alongside the Skills Organisation and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) on several matters, including incorporating the Board's examinations into National Certificates at level 4.

Relationships with Master Plumbers are formal and business-like. Master Plumbers are happy with the consultation opportunities they get from the Board. They broadly agree with the Board about most of its proposals, with a few exceptions. They are usually content with the way that the Board deals with their comments and representations.

Relations with the Federation are still difficult. Two founding members of the Federation have been right in two representations that they made on aspects of the Board's operations, and the Board could have listened better. We discuss these matters in paragraphs 2.37 and 2.38.

However, the Federation has raised many queries, and we acknowledge that the Board faces difficulties trying to respond. Many organisations that face an active group lobbying for change and scrutinising decision-making have this challenge. We note that the Ombudsman published a helpful report on managing complainant conduct. This publication suggests many strategies to manage the workload arising from complaints.3

Although we acknowledge that this has been a challenging matter, the Board needs to try better to work with the Federation. Board members acknowledge that this is important, and spoke of wanting to improve communication with the Federation.

We have suggested again to the Board that they put the minutes of the Board meetings online, with only personal information removed. This is common practice in other public entities, such as local authorities. This should mean that the Board receives fewer official information requests and, in the end, reduce the administrative burden of servicing those requests.

Capacity and capability

In our 2010 report, we identified that a lack of strategic and policy capability in the Board over many years had been at the root of the problems that we found. Responsibilities of managers, board members, and legal staff had sometimes blurred. Some lacked the experience to lead work on complex policy matters. Since then, the Board has increased its strategic capability. Board members and the secretariat staff now have a clearer understanding of roles and responsibilities, and more experience in managing organisations. Without this additional capacity, it is unlikely that the Board would have made as much progress on policy.

After our 2010 report, turnover of Board members at first increased. Nine out of ten members left between March 2010 and January 2011. Since then, board membership has remained relatively stable. Members have served their full term of office and a few have been reappointed for a second term. The chairman stood down at the end of his term of office in January 2014, and was succeeded by the deputy chairman after a vote by the Board.

The disciplinary workload for Board members remains high. If an investigator considers that there is a case to answer following a complaint against a registered and licensed tradesperson, five members of the Board must hear the case. Some members of the Board consider that there is potential to divert more people away from disciplinary action and towards competency reviews, but this would need changes in the Act.

More legal work on District Court prosecutions was brought back in-house, leading to the Board employing an additional solicitor and planning to spend less on external legal support.

The Board is a statutory body, and is not part of a Crown entity. Because of that different legal status, the Board has no access to some of the support and advice that other occupational licensing boards in the building and construction sector have. For example, the Board cannot routinely call on MBIE resources for second opinions, and the secretariat does not get relevant government circulars. This increases the risk that the Board makes decisions using a narrow range of advice.

The improvements in capacity and capability have led to a better-managed organisation, but it has come at a financial cost. We discuss how this cost affects fees and charges in Part 8.

Policies and procedures

The Board has put significant effort into developing policies. More and better policy documents are now available on the Board's website. Some operational guidance is still being prepared, but staff have guidance on major aspects of carrying out their roles.

As part of this follow-up, we looked at 18 policies available on the Board's website. Sixteen raised no significant matters for us. However, the Provisional Licences Policy, one of the 16, was ambiguous in one aspect. When we raised this concern with the Board, it agreed to revise the Provisional Licences Policy.

We had more serious concerns about the policy on the exemptions in sections 12-25 of the Act, and the Board's Supervision Policy. We detail these concerns in Part 3.

Our overall judgement is that the Board's policies are significantly better than in 2010. The policies are usually short, convey some complicated matters in a relatively uncomplicated way, and cover most of the Board's operations.


In 2010, we had wide concerns about the Board's approach to its legal mandate. In our 2010 report, we stated that we expected the Board to place the matter of legality at the centre of its work. We expected to see:

  • a clear and obvious basis for all of the Board's operating policies and decisions in the legislation; and
  • that the Board makes decisions transparently and has natural justice protections built in at every stage.

Our 2013 follow-up work tested additional matters outside our original recommendations, as well as the matters that the Board could expect us to look at. We did this to get some assurance that the Board had adopted better ways of working to carry out all its functions.

We found a more detailed knowledge of the Act, and more legal capacity, specifically in administrative law. As a result, most of the policies and decisions we reviewed had a clear legal basis.

Our 2013 scope included reviewing a sample of decisions that the Board made from July 2012 to December 2013. This sample showed that board papers usually set out in detail the legal basis on which the Board made decisions and exercised its powers. We found one instance where the Board sought legal advice only after it had made a decision, but the legal opinion supported the decision. Board staff had completed training in compliance matters relating to the Board's new policies.

In 2010, we had serious concerns about how the Board made some decisions about individuals, and a lack of information on procedural rights. Since then, the Board has addressed many of our concerns and clearly set out the rights of individuals in correspondence.

There have been two major challenges on Board decisions since we carried out our inquiry.

In December 2011, the Board published a Gazette notice to prescribe a disciplinary levy and an offences fee. The Board then charged tradespeople these fees. A number of tradespeople objected and challenged the legal basis for the fees. The arguments in the matter are long, and have been looked at by the Office of the Ombudsman4 and the Regulations Review Committee (RRC).5 RRC acknowledged that the drafting of the Act had led to an untenable position for the Board. The fees, and therefore the Board's decision, were validated in retrospective legislation in 2013. The Act was also amended to fix the problem for the future.

The second example of a decision made on an unsound legal footing was the introduction of the CPD scheme. On 24 March 2010, the Board published requirements for CPD in a Gazette notice. This Gazette notice was the subject of further complaints to the Ombudsman and the RRC, which upheld some parts of the complaints about unsatisfactory consultation but rejected other aspects. The Board has since re-consulted and amended the Gazette notices.

In summary, we now have few concerns. The risk around legality has decreased because the Board has put in place better policies that cover a greater amount of its work. The Board had addressed the majority of the legal problems we reported on in our inquiry. However, we consider that legality is an aspect that the Board needs to keep focusing on, because of the Act's complexity.

Creating effective accountability

Practical complaints mechanism for people with concerns about the Board's actions or decisions

In 2010, we recommended that the Board introduce a simple and effective complaints process. This was so that there would be an accessible and transparent mechanism for tradespeople to get a prompt review of a decision or action of the Board. We saw this as being an important way of changing the Board's culture and its relationship with those it regulates. In response, the Board approved the General Complaints Resolution Policy on 28 June 2011.

Since this policy was approved, there have been 26 general complaints. This is a small number of complaints when considering the number of registered tradespeople, but some tradespeople may not have thought they were eligible to complain.

Two of the 26 did not proceed beyond the earliest stages. Nine others related to transitional arrangements from the Plumbers, Gasfitters, and Drainlayers Act 1976 (the 1976 Act) to the 2006 Act. Two of the complaints related to examination results. There was no obvious pattern to the remaining 13, six of which were lodged by two complainants.

The Board's website has a section on how to complain that is easy to find and navigate around. It contains concise information that is mostly in plain English. A freephone number is included for those who need more guidance. This means that anyone who wants to raise a complaint should find it relatively easy to do so. We visited the websites of five other occupational licensing boards and did not find any information on how to complain about decisions of those boards (sometimes called councils). The Board is showing good practice by being open about how people can complain.

The General Complaints Resolution Policy is short and to the point. This means that it is relatively easy to read. However, it has a number of exclusions, some of which are not easy to understand.

We found the wording of the policy to be confusing in one aspect. It is a policy on general complaints, but it says that the Board does not accept complaints of a general nature. The Board told us that this means complaints have to be about a specific matter, rather than expressions of overall dissatisfaction. The policy also states that a complainant has to show personal disadvantage. We consider that these two requirements make the policy more restrictive than it needs to be.

Addressing past grievances

On 26 April 2011, the Board adopted a historical complaints resolution policy, and appointed an external assessor (a Queen's Counsel) recommended by the New Zealand Law Society.

The Board received eight complaints, one of which was outside the scope of the policy.

We do not have a view on the decisions of the assessor or those of the Board, but we looked at the rigour of the process. The process was robust. In most instances, the Board apologised, and offered remedies to the complainants.

We are aware that some tradespeople did not take up the remedies offered, because it was not their desired outcome. They continue to be aggrieved about their previous treatment. Some have taken their cases to the Ombudsman.

In reviewing the nature of the historical complaints, we concluded that the events that led to most of them are unlikely to recur.

Addressing the problems from the past was a big step for the Board to take, and we are satisfied that it saw it through.

Stakeholder survey

The Board annually surveys the tradespeople that it regulates. This survey gives a broader signal of satisfaction than the complaints process. The telephone survey, carried out by the NRB, is in its third year. The survey includes current licence holders who have a landline telephone. The NRB uses a random sample to get 405 responses.

In 2014, 83.3% of people who had contacted the Board in the previous year were fairly or very satisfied with the overall service. This was up from 80.3% reported in the 2013 survey. The biggest percentage rise was in people saying they felt their needs had been understood. This went up from 79.2% in 2013 to 87.3% in 2014. Tradespeople were more satisfied with the timeliness of response (85.7% in 2014) than they were in 2013 (80.3%). These figures are positive, and perhaps reflect the work that the Board has carried out in the last three years.

However, people were less satisfied (down from 66.8% to 62.5%) with the registration and licensing process. When asked what would improve their satisfaction, fees and the CPD scheme got the most mentions. The period surveyed included the first year in which plumbers and drainlayers had to complete CPD in order to relicense. We discuss fees further in Part 8.

1: The National Research Bureau (NRB) surveyed 405 tradespeople in January 2014.

2: The Board's website is at

3: Office of the Ombudsman (2012), Managing unreasonable complainant conduct – short guide.

4: See "Complaints by Mr Wal Gordon against the Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers Board relating to a disciplinary levy, continuing professional development and refusal of licensing for non-payment of fee or levy" on the Ombudsman's website:

5: See "Complaints about two notices made by the Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers Board relating to an offences fee" on the Parliament website:

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