Part 1: Introduction

Building a stronger public accountability system for New Zealanders.

This is our second discussion paper on the future of public accountability. Our first paper2 explained the concept of public accountability, why it is important, how it has changed over time, and the factors that could influence how it works in the future. This paper builds on what we learned and explores how well the public accountability system is positioned to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

How well the public sector meets the expectations of Parliament and the public is fundamental to building and maintaining trust and confidence. As the public service3 implements the Public Service Act 2020 and continues with other reforms, there is an opportunity to ensure that the way the public sector is accountable continues to be relevant to Parliament and the public.

Why we carried out this research

We think that an enduring and trusting relationship between the public sector and the public requires effective public accountability. In our first paper, we found there was an increasing gap between what the public expects of the public sector and what the public perceives the public sector provides. In our view, the reasons for this are not just related to the delivery of public services. How well the public sector assures the public that what they do and how they do it is meeting the public's wider expectations of competence, reliability, and honesty is also a contributing factor.

As a result, we questioned whether our current public accountability system is operating in a way that will meet the expectations of the public today and in the future.

Whether real or perceived, this gap can have real-life implications. For example, in discussing the various public accountability concerns underlying Brexit, one researcher observed that people "might feel empowered as consumers … but disempowered as citizens".4

Understanding what the public expects of the public sector is a fundamental first step in reducing this gap. However, a recent Pew Research Centre survey of 34 countries (not including New Zealand) found that about two-thirds of people believe elected officials do not care about what people like them think. This was a main reason for their dissatisfaction with the idea of democracy.5

In New Zealand, surveys on trust in the public sector have produced mixed results. For example, a 2019 survey about Parliament found that members of the public feel that they are, generally, not listened to, and Māori feel less positive (than in previous years) about what Parliament does for them and how it does it.6 However, Te Kawa Mataaho Public Service Commission's 2020 Kiwis Count survey results showed that trust and confidence in the public service increased significantly from 51% in the previous year to 69%.7

Te Kawa Mataaho Public Service Commission (Te Kawa Mataaho) observed that the significant increase in public trust might be due to the Government and the public service building a more informed and trusting relationship with the public during the Covid-19 response.

The way the Government and the public sector interact and communicate with the public is clearly a key factor in an effective public accountability system. We did this work to better understand how this interaction might be able to be improved, and not just in crisis situations.

What we mean by public accountability

In our first paper on the future of public accountability, we noted that researchers have identified many different forms and dimensions of accountability. These include political, legal, ministerial, democratic, bureaucratic, parliamentary, and social accountability. There are also many concepts related to accountability, such as answerability, transparency, visibility, controllability, responsibility, and responsiveness. Additional dimensions, such as shared, mutual, and collective accountability are also increasingly discussed and used.

However, despite the extensive literature and research on public accountability, there are few agreed concepts, frameworks, or guidance. The overall role of public accountability in supporting public trust and confidence is not well understood.

When we use the term "public accountability", we mean the way in which all public organisations demonstrate to Parliament and the public their competence, reliability, and honesty in using public money and resources.

The public accountability system

When we use "public accountability system", we mean the principles, procedures, regulations, institutional arrangements, and participants that support public accountability. The public accountability system underpins every aspect of what the Government and the public sector does every day.

The public accountability system is derived from New Zealand's constitutional arrangements. In a representative democracy, the purpose of a constitution is to "prevent the government from abusing its power over the people of a nation, and to ensure that the government exercises its power as the people wish".8

New Zealand has a representative of the sovereign as the head of state – the Governor-General. There are three branches of government, with powers distributed between them:9

  • The Executive, which is comprised of Ministers and the government departments and agencies they are responsible for. The role of the Executive is to decide policy, deliver public services, and propose and administer the law.
  • The Legislature, which is the House of Representatives (which, together with the sovereign, is Parliament). Its role is to make laws, scrutinise the Executive, and hold them to account on behalf of the public.
  • The Judiciary, which interprets and applies the law.

Figure 1 shows the public directly interacting with all three branches. Members of the public interact with these branches when, for example, they receive or are affected by public services, make a submission about a bill or a draft policy, vote, or take legal action through the courts.

Figure 1
The public's relationship with the three branches of government

The figure shows that in our constitutional arrangements the public has a direct relationship with the Executive, Parliament, and the courts.

Source: Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand at

It is important to note that Figure 1 does not reflect te Tiriti o Waitangi and its place as a founding document in New Zealand. Accountability arrangements related to te Tiriti o Waitangi continue to evolve.

Figure 1 also does not include local government. Local government operates within the legislative and regulatory framework established and maintained by Parliament,10 but councils are also directly accountable to their communities.

When we use the term "public sector" we mean the public organisations (and their employees) that support the Executive's accountability obligations to Parliament and the public. The public sector includes public service organisations, other state service organisations, and local government. When we refer to local government it is within the context of their direct accountability to their communities.

The aims of our research

This paper discusses the role and effectiveness of the public accountability system, how it is working in practice, what might need to change, and what the future of public accountability could look like.

In our view, there is considerable value in ensuring that the approach to, and mechanisms of, public accountability remain relevant to Parliament and the public. This is particularly timely as the reforms to the country's public management and public finance systems are embedded.

This paper will also inform the role of the Auditor-General and how our Office continues to contribute to effective public accountability.

Our approach to the research

To understand how the public accountability system works in practice, we surveyed members of the public and interviewed people who work with the public accountability system. As public accountability is primarily about relationships between people, our work focused on the views of people who experience the public accountability system and/or work with it.

We engaged a research provider to carry out a survey of members of the public. The provider surveyed people of different ages and ethnicities throughout New Zealand. They asked people about their expectations of the public sector and how they think the public sector is held to account and why. The survey took place from August 2019 to September 2019. It involved a combination of five focus group discussions and a New Zealand-wide quantitative survey of 1000 people aged 18 years and older. The quantitative survey had a margin of error at a 95% confidence level of +/- 3.1%.11

We also carried out a series of semi-structured interviews with 37 people who work in the public accountability system. These included public officials (working in both central and local government), members of Parliament, consultants, and architects of the 1980s reforms. We also interviewed representatives from non-governmental and private organisations. Most interviews took place over a four-month period from August 2019 to November 2019.

We wanted to understand the reality of public accountability. We wanted to hear from senior people who work regularly in the public accountability system about how well they felt the system operates today and whether it can meet emerging challenges and opportunities. We wanted to know what these people understood their accountability expectations and responsibilities to be, and how these are managed and realised in their roles as public servants, politicians, and commentators.

We analysed these views against an evaluative framework comprising five steps that we think are required for public accountability (Figure 2).12 These five steps are:

  • informed relationships;
  • a clear set of objectives;
  • relevant information;
  • convenient forums for discussion and debate; and
  • a set of appropriate consequences.

It is important that the five steps in Figure 2 align with each other. For example, if competence is important to the accountability relationship (Step 1), the objective might be to encourage improved performance (Step 2). Therefore, more emphasis could be given to performance targets and continuous improvement (Step 3), reporting that performance (Step 4), and the consequences that control any infringement (Step 5).

However, if honesty and integrity are more important to the relationship (Step 1), the objective might be more about ensuring proper behaviours (Step 2), which means more emphasis on, for example, strengthening integrity systems for preventing and detecting fraud or corruption (Step 3), through mechanisms such as probity or integrity reviews (Step 4), with consequences that control infringements but also motivate and model good behaviour (Step 5).

The scope and limitations of our research

In our first paper on the future of public accountability, we discussed the research on the forms, dimensions, and directions of accountability. Much of the research is technical or theoretical. Some areas are also extensive and not easily summarised. This paper is written for a general audience. Although this limits our ability to cover every aspect of public accountability in detail, it does not limit our overall aim.

This paper does not cover judicial or electoral accountability or the role of the media and non-governmental organisations. It also does not cover, in any real depth, New Zealand's constitution or the relationship between Māori and the Crown. When we talk about Parliament and the public, it is to remind the reader that Parliament represents the public and so what is important to the public is also important to Parliament. Parliament remains the primary accountability institution.

Figure 2
The five steps for effective public accountability

There are five essential steps that are necessary to establish public accountability as described in the diagram below – the relationship, the objective, the information, the mechanism for debate, and the judgement.

Source: Office of the Auditor-General.

The Auditor-General does not comment on government policy except when reviewing how well particular policies are implemented (for example, their effectiveness and efficiency). This paper is therefore limited in what it says about the options to improve the public accountability system because these are matters of government policy. Our aim is to draw attention to the challenges and opportunities that the public accountability system needs to address, and encourage discussion about ideas for change.

Finally, although the approach to the research is designed to cover as many perspectives as possible, those interviewed and surveyed represent only a sample of the public and the public sector. One implication of this is that we are limited in what we can say about the accountability expectations of Māori, youth, or other groups in society.

2: Office of the Auditor-General (2019), Public accountability: A matter of trust and confidence, Wellington.

3: Under the Public Service Act 2020, the public service refers to departments, departmental agencies, interdepartmental executive boards, and ventures. Crown agents and other state service organisations are also subject to parts of the Act, for example, when setting out public service principles and values.

4: Wright, T (2019), "Democracy and its discontents", in Gamble, A and Wright, T (Eds.), Rethinking Democracy, the Political Quarterly Publishing, at page 9.

5: Wike, R and Schumacher, S (2020), Democratic Rights Popular Globally but Commitment to Them Not Always Strong: Most say elected officials are out of touch, Pew Research Centre, page 4.

6: House of Representatives (2019), Survey of the New Zealand public, Colmar Brunton, pages 2 and 3, at

7: Results of the Kiwis Count survey are at The latest quarterly survey as of July 2021 shows trust in the public service sits at 63%, down slightly from last years 69%.

8: Palmer, M (2012), "Constitution", Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, at

9: See New Zealand's constitutional system at

10: For more information about local government in New Zealand, see

11: The margin of error relates only to the quantitative survey. It is an estimate of the range that we expect the overall population result to be within. A margin of error of +/- 3% at a 95% confidence level means that if the same survey was repeated another 100 times with a different sample from the same population, we would expect 95 of those surveys to show results within +/- 3% of the original result.

12: See Office of the Auditor-General (2019), Public accountability: A matter of trust and confidence. We created our evaluative framework by looking at information from Sulu-Gambari, W (2014), Examining public accountability and policy issues in emerging economies: A case study of the Federal Ministry of Transport, Nigeria; Bovens, M, Schillemans, T, and ‘t Hart, P (2008), "Does public accountability work? An assessment tool"; Bovens, M (2005), "Public accountability – A framework for the analysis and assessment of accountability arrangements in the public domain"; Ashworth, R and Skelcher, C (2005), "Meta-evaluation of the local government modernisation agenda"; and Mees, H and Driessen, P (2018), "A framework for assessing the accountability of local governance arrangements for adaptation to climate change".