Part 4: Challenges and encouraging results

Public sector accountability through raising concerns.

In this Part, we focus on six inquiry agencies. We discuss:

Increased complexity of complaints, matters, and challenges

In a recent report, we discussed the context of change in which public services are delivered. The changes include an ageing population, urbanisation, a more diverse population, financial constraints, and increasing expectations of public services.7

We noted that the context of change presents challenges and opportunities for public entities, including:

  • how to involve people, families, and communities in designing, planning, and delivering services;
  • how to use and share data and information to design, plan, and communicate about service delivery;
  • how to work with others to deliver connected and integrated services; and
  • how best to measure service performance and benchmark services to provide accountability and inform improvements in service delivery.

In response to these challenges, public entities are changing their approach to service delivery, and inquiry agencies are seeing increasing complexity in the complaints and concerns that people raise with them.

Complexity manifests itself in many different ways and can have many different effects. One type of complexity we have observed is that inquiry agencies are dealing with more complaints that involve multiple entities. Multiple-entity matters can be more complex because:

  • the inquiry agency needs to understand the systems and processes of each entity involved to understand the matter before it;
  • the inquiry agency also needs to understand the interaction between the entities and their processes; and
  • the inquiry agency has to manage communications with and requests of the different entities, which can be more difficult when the entities work to different time frames and have different priorities.

When a complaint or concern involves both private and public sector entities, it can be more difficult to deal with. This is because it can be difficult for inquiry agencies to work out how much, or which aspects, of the complaint they are authorised to look into. For example, after expressions of concern, our Office began an inquiry into the process that the Ministry of Economic Development (the Ministry) followed leading up to the Government's decision to negotiate with SkyCity Entertainment Group Limited (SkyCity) about developing an international convention centre in Auckland.

We found that although the decision to negotiate with SkyCity was based on appropriate considerations, there were a range of deficiencies in the process that the Ministry followed. We did not have a mandate to look into the activities of SkyCity. Our inquiry could look at only the parts of the process that the Ministry was responsible for, and identifying those aspects of the negotiations that were within our mandate could be complicated.8

Using new technology in the delivery of services can also contribute to an increase in the complexity of a complaint or concern. The Independent Police Conduct Authority gave an example of how this has affected it:

Police operations are increasingly reliant on the use of technology, as an aid to both routine preventative policing and the detection of offending after it has occurred. This impacts on the nature and range of complaints and referrals received by the [Independent Police Conduct] Authority. We must understand the nature of the technology with which police work, its importance to effective policing, and its implications for the privacy of individuals.9

In this instance, the Independent Police Conduct Authority needs to increase its capability, or get access to the expertise it requires, to carry out its role effectively.

Increasing workloads

Increasing workloads were mentioned often during our discussions with inquiry agencies. We identified three aspects that contribute to increasing workloads. Some inquiry agencies face:

  • more public demand for their services;
  • more complex complaints or concerns; and
  • more material to review.

Public demand and work completed

Public demand, as measured by the number of complaints or other requests for services that inquiry agencies receive, can be changeable. Our review of the annual reports of the six agencies showed that, although public demand for the services of some has remained constant or declined, demand for the services of others has increased significantly.

In 2014, the Human Rights Commission reported that the number of unlawful discrimination complaints it received had remained fairly constant in recent years. However, it noted that the total number of enquiries and complaints received is declining.

Similarly, the Privacy Commissioner reported that the number of complaints it received in 2013/14 had reduced from 2012/13. The Privacy Commissioner attributed the decline to the effect that some high-profile breaches had during 2012/13.

For the Office of the Children's Commissioner, the number of enquiries received on its Child's Rights Line decreased by 38% between 2011/12 and 2013/14.

In contrast, in 2014 the Ombudsman reported that it had received 11,044 complaints and other work − the second highest amount it had ever received in a year. This was 13% more than the average amount of work it had received in each of the previous 10 years. During the same year, the Ombudsman completed 11,505 complaints and other items of work. The Ombudsman noted that this represented 19% more than the average amount of work completed each year in the previous 10 years.

The Health and Disability Commissioner reported a 27% increase in the number of complaints received between 2010/11 and 2013/14. It also reported a 40% increase in the number of complaints files closed between 2010/11 and 2013/14 (see Figure 4).

Figure 4
Number of complaints received by the Health and Disability Commissioner and complaint files closed, 2010/11 to 2013/14

Figure 4 Number of complaints received by the Health and Disability Commissioner and complaint files closed, 2010/11 to 2013/14.

Source: Health and Disability Commissioner (2014), Annual report for the year ended 30 June 2014, Wellington.

Complex nature of complaints and concerns increases workloads

In the past, when complaints received were usually directed at a single public entity, inquiry agencies had to understand the systems and processes of that public entity. Today, more often, inquiry agencies have to understand the systems and processes of many public entities involved in a matter and how they interact with each other.

Another result of some complaints becoming more complex is that individual complaints can take longer and require more resources to resolve or respond to. This means that, even if the number of complaints or requests for services decreases over time, it remains possible for the workloads of inquiry agencies to increase.

Increased volumes of material to review

In this digital age, it has become easier to transfer a lot of information. Some inquiry agencies told us about receiving more material to support a person's complaint or concern. For example, one inquiry agency told us that some people attach many electronic documents, all of which they have to review to understand the facts of the matter. People may also email a complaint or request, and any attachments, to multiple inquiry agencies at the same time. Each inquiry agency has to review the documents and decide whether it is best placed to resolve the matter.

Although access to additional information can improve the quality of decisions made, reviewing the additional information requires more time and resources than in the past.

Resource constraints

The inquiry agencies that we spoke with told us that adequately resourcing their work is a challenge. They told us that, when faced with difficult resourcing decisions, they often had to put aside completing work in a timely way and carrying out proactive investigations or inquiries.

Some inquiry agencies told us that they were making efforts to resolve complaints and issues before they escalate to more resource-intensive methods of resolution. For example, the Human Rights Commission has a focus on using alternative dispute resolution and mediation processes to resolve matters early. Staff from the Human Rights Commission said that this can be less expensive and better for the relationship between the parties compared to resolution through the Employment Relations Tribunal, Human Rights Review Tribunal, or the courts.

Despite efforts to reduce costs, inquiry agencies are making difficult choices about how they meet expectations of them as best they can. For example, some of the six agencies have been drawing on their financial reserves to meet their operating costs. In its 2014 briefing to the incoming Minister, the Office of the Children's Commissioner noted that it could maintain its functions in 2014/15 only by drawing further on its limited financial reserves. It noted that, without a baseline increase, it would have to reduce its functions from 2015/16 onward.

Staff from the Office of the Children's Commissioner have since told us that they have identified and implemented a range of initiatives to reduce costs and can continue to deliver statutory functions within baseline funding. For example, the Office of the Children's Commissioner has moved to online publishing only, to reduce printing costs. The Office of the Children's Commissioner has also changed the frequency of monitoring and visits to Youth Justice and Care and Protection residences from an annual visit to visiting residences every 18 months. We were told that these changes have been made so that the Office of the Children's Commissioner can manage within current staffing and resourcing levels.

Many public entities face similar challenges relating to resource constraints. We make no comment on the Government's policy decisions about funding or resourcing. Our role is to comment on the implementation and consequences of those decisions.

Encouraging results

Despite increasing complexity and workloads, and the challenges of operating within resource constraints, we found that – according to the high level information in their annual reports – the six agencies continue to provide a reasonable level of service to the people who contact them. In particular, we looked at:

  • satisfaction rates among the users of the six agencies' services; and
  • whether the six agencies completed work promptly.

Measuring satisfaction with the six agencies' services

Several of the six agencies report on people's satisfaction with their experience of the agencies' services. In most instances, the people surveyed are complainants or other members of the public. However, the Independent Police Conduct Authority also asks the police officers they investigate how satisfied they are with the investigation. The Ombudsman surveys the satisfaction of complainants and State sector agencies.

The six agencies largely meet their performance targets for satisfaction with their services. For example, the Human Rights Commission reported that:

  • 97% of people surveyed in 2013/14 were satisfied or very satisfied with the mediation process (the performance target is 90%); and
  • 99% were happy with the neutrality of the mediator who worked with them (the target is 90%).

Where the information was available, we reviewed the results from various measures of satisfaction from 2010/11 to 2013/14. Although the results for each satisfaction measure fluctuated, the difference between satisfaction rates in 2010/11 and in 2013/14 was often 5% or less. In our view, this relatively small variance suggests that the six agencies are maintaining a level of service delivery that is consistently satisfactory.

Completing their work in a timely way

The six agencies reported that completing work promptly was the most challenging aspect of their service performance. We were told that, often, the six agencies' work is not timely when they are under pressure because of a lack of resources or an increase in workload or complexity of work. Despite this, we saw some encouraging signs.

The Ombudsman is one inquiry agency that appears to be having difficulty meeting all of its performance targets for completing work promptly. Although the Ombudsman met two of three targets for the timely completion of urgent investigations in 2013/14, it had more difficulty meeting its performance targets for completing priority investigations and completing investigations for complaints that it considers to be outside its jurisdiction.10 A factor that might have contributed to these results is the significant increase in the volume of complaints and other work received in the past five years.

Some of the six agencies are consistently achieving performance targets for completing their work in a timely way. Between 2010/11 and 2013/14, four of the six agencies met all, or nearly all, of their performance targets for completing work in a timely way.

7: Controller and Auditor-General (2015), Reflections from our audits: Service delivery, page 5.

8: Controller and Auditor-General (2013), Inquiry into the Government's decision to negotiate with SkyCity Entertainment Group Limited for an international convention centre.

9: Independent Police Conduct Authority (2014), Statement of Intent 2014/15 to 2017/18, Wellington, pages 16-17.

10: After preliminary investigation of all complaints received, the Ombudsman may determine that some complaints are outside its jurisdiction. In some instances, the Ombudsman refers the complainant to another inquiry agency.