Auditor-General's overview

Building a stronger public accountability system for New Zealanders.

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā karangarangatanga maha o te motu, tēnā koutou.

Public accountability is about public organisations demonstrating to Parliament and the public their competence, reliability, and honesty in their use of public money and other public resources.1 In our 2019 discussion paper, Public accountability: A matter of trust and confidence, we questioned whether the way public organisations are currently held accountable met the expectations of an increasingly diverse, dynamic, and connected society.

This discussion paper builds on that question and explores in more depth how well New Zealand's public accountability system is working in practice. People who worked in the public sector told us that, although the system had strengths, it was not working as well as it could. In many ways, the public accountability system has become too inwardly focused and disconnected from the public. It is seen by many as compliance-driven and provides little useful information about what is important to Parliament and the public.

There are reforms under way that might change that. These reforms include an increased focus on supporting well-being, new mechanisms that the public sector can use to address complex societal challenges, and new requirements to improve how public organisations work with Māori and to reinforce the spirit of service to the communities they serve.

In my view, improved public accountability should sit alongside improved performance as a driver for any public sector reform. Without appropriate focus on both, there is a risk that changes might improve the way public services are delivered but still fail to earn the buy-in and trust of New Zealanders.

The way we think about public accountability needs to change. Long-term stewardship of New Zealanders' well-being needs to be valued as much as short-term management of current issues. Equally, how public organisations behave should be as important as the services they deliver. Public organisations should value their relationships with communities as much as their relationships with Ministers.

The public sector needs to better communicate to Parliament and the public what it does, why it does it, and how it contributes to the outcomes that are important for New Zealand.

More transparency and improved reporting would be helpful. However, to provide effective public accountability, public organisations need to understand what is important to Parliament and the public. I therefore would like to see the public sector:

  • prepare a vision and strategy for how they will be accountable to Parliament and the public;
  • tailor, integrate, and align public accountability information so it is more meaningful to the public;
  • broaden and strengthen the channels for discussion, debate, and feedback about performance; and
  • consider how to address poor performance in a way that provides appropriate incentives to improve.

The public accountability system needs to change to meet the expectations of Parliament and the public. However, it is important to keep the features of the public accountability system that serve us well.

I encourage Parliament to consider how it can champion and advocate for change to ensure that the public it represents gets the accountability it deserves.

I will continue to monitor the implications of public sector reforms on public accountability and encourage discussions on how to improve it. Effective public accountability is critical to the trust and confidence that the public has in the system of government.

I thank the many individuals who contributed their time and ideas to our work.

Nāku noa, nā

Signature - JR

John Ryan
Controller and Auditor-General

14 October 2021

1: Office of the Auditor-General (2019), Public accountability: A matter of trust and confidence, Wellington
Adapted from O'Neill, O (June 2013), "What we don't understand about trust" (video),