Part 7: Conclusions and reflections

Reflections from our audits: Our future needs - is the public sector ready?

Overall, in considering the question Our future needs – is the public sector ready? we have concluded that there are many strengths to build on. But there are also many challenges and uncertainties. The public sector needs to keep pace with change if it is to serve us well into the future.

It is important we understand that our future holds many complex and inter-related challenges. These challenges are social, economic, and environmental, and they will profoundly affect the public sector as it strives to meet our future needs.

Facing those challenges is vital for our future. From our work throughout the public sector, I offer some overall conclusions and reflections. The public sector needs to:

  • continue its journey of understanding how effective its work is – we see positive signs of progress and early hope of success in Māori education;
  • learn from recent unexpected disasters that it must be ready for the unlikely and catastrophic – taking time to think and plan is a necessity, not a luxury;
  • improve how to prioritise activities and have plans to ensure that the intended benefits of decisions and investments are delivered;
  • better position itself to make the right calls on questions about significant investments in assets and using resources;
  • build up consistent expertise for governance and management;
  • move up a gear in providing financial advice on future investments, funding, and managing public resources;
  • make smarter use of information and technology – there are many positive examples;
  • understand that thinking about and planning for long-term resilience and sustainability is vital for our future; and
  • continue to explore ways of communicating better with citizens so that they are empowered to contribute to our future choices and to shape the public services they receive.

Carrying out the work for this report has influenced my thinking and that of my Office about our part in preparing for the public sector's future. Before we set the theme, Our future needs – is the public sector ready?, we planned our work every year. However, as Auditor-General, I have a unique overview of the entire public sector. This overview is built over time, mainly through our annual audits and through our analysis and reporting on the results of public entities' external reports. Our in-depth performance audits, inquiries, and other studies deepen it.

We are now taking a multi-year approach to planning our work, for two main reasons:

  • The first reason is to make the most efficient use of the Office's resources. Our audit and reporting work involves looking at a lot of information from the entire public sector. About 87% of our effort each year is spent on carrying out the annual audits of public entities. A big-picture theme helps us draw together findings and insights from auditing this wide range of public entities.
  • The second reason is to be as effective as we can. When we signal topics that we intend to focus on, many public entities begin to improve and strengthen these aspects without us needing to carry out detailed audit work.

My 2014/15 work programme is the third in a five-year programme based on annual themes. These themes are:

  • 2012/13 – Our future needs – is the public sector ready?;
  • 2013/14 – Service delivery;
  • 2014/15 – Governance and accountability;
  • 2015/16 – Investment and asset management; and
  • 2016/17 – Information.

My annual plan describes my priorities and the work that would be useful, based on my knowledge of the public sector and its strengths, challenges, and problems.

In Part 6, I noted that social media has the potential to change the way that public services are delivered to New Zealanders, not just connecting and communicating with people, but actively involving them and even empowering them. This general comment is relevant for my Office's work too. I intend to develop and experiment with opportunities for greater public engagement and involvement in my Office's work during the coming years.

These opportunities may include, for example, forums about:

  • the future of public sector accountability;
  • the governance and decision-making arrangements between central and local government; and
  • the ongoing stewardship of our assets and scarce natural resources.

I am left with questions about which bodies can take these thoughts and lead work about the public sector and its future. A few organisations, such as the State Services Commission and Local Government New Zealand, may be in a position to take the next steps.

I trust that the public of New Zealand and those who work in and with the public sector will reflect on these observations, discuss our future needs, and act on their reflections.

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