Part 1: Introduction

Public accountability: A matter of trust and confidence.

This discussion paper is about trust – in particular, the role that public accountability plays in helping the public maintain trust and confidence in the public sector. In today's more diverse, dynamic, and connected world, the way in which the public sector tells its story and assures New Zealanders that it is meeting their expectations is fundamental to this.

This discussion paper draws on a range of New Zealand and international literature to help explain what public accountability means and why it is important. It also looks at how public accountability has changed during the last 30 years and how it could change in the future. This discussion paper is the first phase of our work to better understand what the future of public accountability could look like.

Why we are doing this research

The world is changing rapidly, which presents challenges and opportunities for New Zealand and its public sector. Internationally, there are signs that people might be losing trust and confidence in their governments and democratic institutions. Recent examples include the "Brexit" demonstrations in the United Kingdom and France's "yellow vest" protests. Some have reported that both are crises of legitimacy and democracy.1

Although the underlying causes of these challenges are complex, they highlight a gap between what an increasingly connected and informed public expects of the public sector and what the public sector is seen to provide.

It seems that, although individuals are becoming more connected through, for example, social media, public sectors are becoming less connected with individuals. Surveys continue to suggest that public trust and confidence might not be strong as it could be, particularly in minority communities.

The reasons for this gap might not necessarily be about how well the public sector delivers services (through the public management system) but about how well the public sector tells its story and assures the public that it is meeting the public's expectations (through the public accountability system).

Understanding how public accountability supports public trust and confidence, even when the public sector is performing well, will be important for New Zealanders and their public sector in the 21st century.

The aims of, and approach to, our research

The three main aims for this first discussion paper are:

  • to begin to explore the role of public accountability in maintaining public trust and confidence, and the implications of changes in society and in the public sector;
  • to encourage more thinking and debate about what effective public accountability arrangements could look like; and
  • to inform our own thinking about the role of the Auditor-General in an evolving public accountability system.

This discussion paper also sets the scene for the next phase of our research. The next phase will build on what we have learned and consider how well the current public accountability system is able to respond to the challenges and opportunities the public sector faces. This will draw on a wide range of perspectives from within and outside the public sector.

This paper has been informed by New Zealand and international literature and commentary about the concept of public accountability, why it is important, how it is being evaluated, and contemporary concerns about its use. We have also drawn on observations and comments from academics, public officials who have contributed to public management reforms, and staff at the Office of the Auditor-General.

Scope and limitations

We use the term "public sector" to mean the government of the day and its agencies, including local government and its agencies. Our main focus is on the changing accountability relationship between public sector agencies (and their employees) and the public of New Zealand.

For the purposes of this paper, we do not include Parliament in the public sector because it represents the public rather than the Government.

We use the term "public" to mean voters, taxpayers, ratepayers, and other interested or affected parties, as well as businesses, non-profit organisations, and other types of companies.

Much has been written about accountability in government and in the public sector. This paper does not attempt to cover all aspects or perspectives of public sector accountability. We do not discuss many other important accountability mechanisms that affect the public sector in detail – for example, through the courts, through New Zealand's national or local body electoral system, or through Ministers' individual and collective responsibility to Parliament.

Our primary focus is to explore the fundamental and important accountability relationship between the public sector and the public they ultimately serve.

1: See, for example, "Britain's followership problem" (2019) from The Economist, 2 May 2019 and "France's protests mark a border crisis for Western democracy" (2018) from The Washington Post, 4 December 2018.