Part 1: Introduction

Public sector accountability through raising concerns.
A democratic state exists to serve its citizens … That many members of the public need assistance or support in dealing with a state agency is an implicit admission that that agency is still not sufficiently responsive to the needs of the user – that the law is too complicated, or that the agency's actions are not explained clearly enough or in a way which is accessible to every individual1

In this Part, we discuss:

Public sector accountability

A public entity is accountable when it is required or expected to explain or justify its actions or decisions.

Layers of public sector accountability and how it operates in practice can be complex. For example, a public entity could be required or expected to be accountable by legislation, through reporting to Parliament, ministers, and monitoring agencies, through scrutiny by investigative bodies, through the courts, and by responding to questions from the media and/or matters that members of the public raise with them.

People can go to various bodies, officials, or agencies with public sector accountability roles (for simplicity, inquiry agencies) that can look into their concerns if people are not satisfied with the response they get directly from a public entity. Our Office is one of those inquiry agencies.

What we looked at

People should be able to easily make complaints or raise concerns with the public entity they have been dealing with and, if that fails, to approach the appropriate inquiry agency. This is a fundamental part of our democratic system.

In this report, we discuss how easily people can make a complaint or raise a concern about an action or decision of a public entity in central (rather than local) government through these channels. We include what we have learned about the strengths of, and challenges facing, six particular inquiry agencies.

Our work builds on work we completed in 2014, looking at arrangements in the Accident Compensation Corporation and the Ministry of Social Development for handling complaints. We chose those public entities because they deal with a great many New Zealanders every year. We found room for improvement in how both entities handle complaints.

In this report, we discuss:

  • what is working and what is not;
  • any barriers to access;
  • any barriers to effectiveness; and
  • any gaps and overlaps.

Our work on public sector accountability had three main components. We have:

  • produced an overall "map" of the various functions and inquiry agencies;
  • looked more closely at a sample of six inquiry agencies and their activities; and
  • explored how people can make complaints or raise concerns, including some of the challenges to having complaints or concerns heard and resolved.

As far as we know, this information has not been compiled and made available in one place before.

What we did not look at

We have focused on public sector accountability in central government. We have not looked at how easily people can make complaints or raise concerns about local government organisations. In 2015/16, we are reviewing how Auckland Council handles complaints.

We did not look at the role of courts, tribunals, or Parliament because these institutions are not within our mandate.

How we did our work

We looked for information about making complaints and raising concerns about the action or decisions of public entities. It quickly became clear that there was no comprehensive or easily accessible list of inquiry agencies. We set about compiling such a list – identifying the various public sector accountability functions that are available and the inquiry agencies responsible for them.

We recorded the information about functions, roles, and inquiry agencies in a large spreadsheet. We also recorded who they could act for.

It made sense to us to exclude organisations for which the accountability function is:

  • internal – effectively reconsidering its own decisions or actions; or
  • not in use – where the function exists in legislation but not in practice.2

To stay within our mandate, our focus needed to be on the public organisations that watch over or review the actions of one or many other public entities. We also excluded organisations set up to regulate industries or activities that include, but are not exclusive to, public entities, such as the Electricity and Gas Complaints Commissioner.

After removing internal or industry-related organisations, and those that cover private entities, we were left with a list of about 50 inquiry agencies. We then looked for and identified:

  • relationships and connections between them;
  • the public entities or topics they watch over;
  • who they could intervene on behalf of; and
  • what powers they had.

We also spoke to representatives of six inquiry agencies and reviewed the inquiry agencies' corporate documents. We put that information together with what we had learned through the work so far and used it to identify common challenges for the inquiry agencies. The six agencies were the:

  • Health and Disability Commissioner;
  • Human Rights Commission;
  • Independent Police Conduct Authority;
  • Office of the Children's Commissioner;
  • Office of the Ombudsman (Ombudsman); and
  • Office of the Privacy Commissioner (Privacy Commissioner).

Sharing the detailed information we gathered

It was clear to us that the information we gathered for this work could be useful to those who work directly with the public and provide advice and support to people in need.

To be useful, this information needs to be kept up to date and in a user-friendly format. We are not best placed to do that. After talking with some government and non-government organisations, the team at the Department of Internal Affairs agreed to use the information we had gathered to supplement the website at That website is an all-of-government site that aims to make it easier for people to understand and find government agencies.3

We hope that, with the right technical expertise, the information we have gathered can help in connecting people to inquiry agencies more easily and quickly.

In October 2015, we hosted a meeting to introduce interested inquiry agencies to the team. The team intends to collaborate with those agencies to work out how best to use and present the information that we have provided.

The structure of our report

In Part 2, we discuss concepts and principles that are important to public sector accountability. We also describe how the scrutiny of public entity performance supports public sector accountability.

In Part 3, we list the many organisations that are responsible for aspects of public sector accountability. We discuss the activities common to inquiry agencies, what they can do to help, and what they can look into.

In Part 4, we discuss the increasing complexity of some complaints and concerns, the increasing workloads of the six agencies, their resource constraints, and some service results.

In Part 5, we discuss accessing public entities and inquiry agencies to make complaints or raise concerns, the effectiveness of inquiry agencies, and collaboration between them.

1: Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor (2004), Transforming Public Services: Complaints, Redress and Tribunals, London, page 48, available at

2: In the course of our work, we identified some legislation that we suspected was redundant or partly redundant. We referred these to the Treasury for consideration as part of the 2015 Statutes Repeal Bill.

3: The work of the team was recognised in November 2015, when it won the WriteMark Best Plain English Website — Public Sector/Non-Government Organisation award.