Part 4: Building a better system of public accountability for New Zealanders

Building a stronger public accountability system for New Zealanders.

From our interviews, we heard a general frustration about the public accountability system not working in the way that it should. The people we spoke to indicated that the system is complicated, cluttered, inflexible, and not widely understood. Although there are strong centralised institutions and processes, these sit in a large, complex, and somewhat entangled accountability network.

In this Part, we consider how the public accountability system could more effectively respond to changing public expectations and new challenges and opportunities. Although our discussion is not intended to be exhaustive, we hope that it provides a starting point for further discussion about how the public accountability system could better meet the needs of the public.

Improving public sector relationships

In our view, the need for the public sector to establish better and more informed relationships with the public is of central importance to building an effective public accountability system. Knowing what the diverse (and sometimes inexact and conflicting) expectations that the public has of the public sector is the first step in being accountable to Parliament and the public.

The complexity and challenges of the multiple relationships in the public accountability system will also require careful management. From the perspective of Parliament and the public, these complexities can make the public accountability system seem obscure, incoherent, and difficult to engage with or participate in.

So can the increasing complexity of the public accountability system be managed? How does the public sector better connect with the public? Importantly, can the public sector develop more informed relationships with those groups who have lower trust and confidence in the public sector?

We discuss some ideas that could help answer these questions.

Recognise and manage public accountability as a complex system

The public accountability system is complex and characterised by multiple and connected relationships, interdependencies, and uncertainties (see Figure 5). As the public sector operates more as stewards of New Zealanders' intergenerational well-being, this complexity will increase.

These complexities will make decision-making more difficult and could affect organisational and system performance. To lead well, senior leaders need clarity about what they are accountable for but this is becoming more difficult where their leadership involves:

  • collective and individual responsibilities;
  • uncertain and uncontrollable outcomes; or
  • multiple accountabilities to different Ministers, Boards, Parliament and others.

As McKinsey observes, complex systems should not be seen "as a problem to be eliminated but as a challenge to be managed".46 The public accountability system will require active management to ensure that current and new working relationships are organised in a logical way and aligned to support the public accountability system's objectives.

In Part 5, we discuss the need for a clear vision and strategy for public accountability. A clear vision and strategy might help manage an evolving and complex system. This could involve reviewing and rationalising the existing relationships and arrangements, simplifying difficult processes, or developing more relevant ones. It might also mean supporting those who work in the public accountability system to understand its various relationships, interdependencies, and uncertainties.

The public accountability system will always involve multiple relationships and expectations. However, the evolving nature of these relationships and expectations are creating new questions and issues that will require careful thought.

Better regional networks to support parts of the public accountability system

Many of the public services that central government provides are delivered by decentralised public organisations. These organisations include district health boards, universities, and schools. Currently, how these organisations account to Parliament and the public for their services and outcomes can have little to do with what communities receiving the services or experiencing those outcomes think.

As Figure 5 shows, many of the public accountability relationships follow lines of funding rather than relating to services or outcomes. This was sometimes confusing for the people we interviewed, particularly those outside of Wellington who work more directly with the public.

In our view, the public sector might be missing the opportunity to use these closer community relationships to both inform Parliament about what communities think and demonstrate competence, reliability, and honesty to those same communities. Having a two-way flow of information could help build more informed relationships and provide a foundation for more effective public accountability.

To some extent this idea is already being tested. In Part 2, we noted that there are plans to enable central government agencies to work in a more joined-up way to help support and deliver regional and local government priorities. This initiative focuses on the Government working more effectively to deliver its objectives in the regions. Part of this initiative was to publish regional profiles and public sector priorities to "articulate what the public service is doing in a region and provide a platform to open discussion with local government, Māori and stakeholders".47

The Cabinet paper outlining this joined-up approach also suggests more thought is needed about the accountability arrangements to support this initiative.48 We agree. Some relevant questions about accountability arrangements to consider include:

  • what the accountability arrangement is intended to achieve;
  • who is accountable;
  • what is the most relevant information;
  • what assurances are required; and
  • what consequences, if any, are appropriate to encourage a more joined-up and community-centred way of working.

The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 could also offer some insights about how to develop closer relationships across different arms of government. The Act sets out seven common well-being goals for national government, local government, local health boards, and other specified public bodies. It also requires all public bodies to take an integrated approach to ensure that their well-being objectives are aligned and that impacts on other organisations are understood, particularly where they could be detrimental.49

The reforms from the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act also provide some lessons to learn from. For example, the Act established Public Services Boards as local mechanisms for setting relevant objectives and monitoring performance. One researcher observed that adding and not aligning the functions of Public Services Boards to existing accountability systems caused a range of issues and limited commitment from some communities.50

More support for agencies to understand the accountability relationship between Māori and the Crown

The Public Service Act specifically recognises the public service's role in supporting the Crown's relationship with Māori under te Tiriti o Waitangi.51 Section 14 of the Public Service Act requires public service leaders to develop and maintain the capability of the public service to engage with Māori and to understand Māori perspectives.

During our interviews we were told that, for Māori, accountabilities under te Tiriti o Waitangi are fundamental. We were also told that the attributes of public trust and confidence – competence, reliability, and honesty – are consistent with important aspects of tikanga.

In 2018, Te Arawhiti, a Crown agency, was established to help develop and maintain effective and enduring relationships with Māori across government. Supporting Te Arawhiti and other public organisations to better engage with Māori will enable Māori perspectives and expectations to be embedded in the public management, public finance, and public accountability systems. This could contribute to a stronger and more enduring relationship between Māori and the Crown.

New Zealand is not alone in grappling with these issues. Canada's Constitution Act 1982 deals with the existing rights of indigenous peoples. The Act recognises that indigenous leaders should be fully accountable to their members and clients for all decisions and actions under their jurisdiction or authority.52 There are different accountability mechanisms for self-governing communities, including representative assemblies, citizenship committees, Elders' councils, and Clan Councillors.53

In our view, better understanding of what it means to be accountable in te ao Māori will be important to an enduring and informed relationship between Māori and the Crown.54

A clearer set of objectives

If the public accountability system is to be relevant, it should be responsive to the needs of the public. According to the results of our survey, the public is interested in what the Government and the public sector does. People want to know that the public sector is not only competent in providing services efficiently and effectively, but it also acts in a way that is responsible, responsive, respectful, honest, and inclusive.

Changes in public expectations, and in the public sector, might mean changes are needed in public accountability objectives. Providing an account to Parliament and the public is not just about demonstrating what public organisations spend, manage, and deliver. It is also about demonstrating how these organisations work to serve the public in a way that builds long-term trust and confidence.

So how does the public sector retain the important parts of the public accountability system while developing objectives that reflect the increasing expectations of the public?

We discuss some ideas that could help answer this question.

Prepare an overall public accountability vision and strategy

In our view, a vision and strategy for effective public accountability would help clarify the public accountability system's objectives and guiding principles. It would help give assurance to Parliament and the public that the public accountability system is well founded, cohesive, and aligned with what is important for the public.

A vision could include values or aspirations for public accountability. For example, improving public trust and confidence, improving parliamentary scrutiny, and improving public sector decision-making.

A strategy could describe how to achieve these aspirations and what is needed to clarify and support the public accountability system and its connections with the public management and public finance systems.

Insights could be found by looking at the private sector. For example, one New Zealand company we spoke to maintains the trust of its customers through a constantly evolving trust strategy and roadmap. The company acknowledges the "symbiotic relationship" that it has with its customers, which starts with understanding what needs to be achieved together.

Having a generally accepted vision and strategy could help those working in the public sector better understand and appreciate the relevance of public accountability in their work. The strategy could consider the complexity of the public accountability system and its long-term future in a more holistic way.

A public accountability strategy could have principles to guide how good public accountability is considered and implemented. For example, citizen-focused principles could include relevance (being aware, interested, and understanding what is important), responsiveness (being reliable, respectful, honest, and authentic), and accessibility (being inclusive, engaging, and receptive).

The Public Finance Act 1989 has eight principles for responsible fiscal management. These principles include, for example, prudent debt management, prudent fiscal risk management, fiscal strategy sustainability, and effective and efficient management of Crown resources. They provide a common foundation for considering and implementing good fiscal management throughout central government.

Section 12 of the Public Service Act also sets out a range of principles to assist the public service in supporting the current and future governments. These include:

  • free and frank advice to Ministers;
  • fostering a culture of open government; and
  • promoting long-term stewardship.

Developing a set of guiding principles might also provide a way of maintaining a shared focus on what is important for public organisations as they attempt to manage multiple and sometimes conflicting accountability expectations.

Providing more relevant and appropriate information

To be relevant and appropriate, accountability information should give Parliament and the public assurance about how well their expectations are being met. Accountability information that is relevant to the public should help Parliament hold the Government to account on behalf of the public.

Our research suggests that meeting the public's expectations for accountability will require demonstrating different indicators of competence, reliability, and honesty that are more tailored, accessible, timely, and relevant. This might mean that information about public sector behaviours (for example, acting with integrity and openness) and how we work (for example, collaboratively, sustainably, and inclusively) will become as important as information about the effectiveness and efficiency of what is being delivered.

How do public sector organisations develop and organise indicators of success to help assure Parliament and the public instead of confusing and overwhelming them? Can the public sector involve Parliament and the public more directly in establishing appropriate indicators of success?

We discuss some ideas that could help answer these questions.

Incorporating a wider set of attributes

Annual reports are the main way public organisations currently describe and demonstrate what they do. Annual reports contain information that has been carefully prepared and audited. However, this information is not useful for all audiences.

Incorporating a wider range of attributes that reflect public sector competence, reliability, and honesty could make accountability information more relevant and useful to different audiences.

The Public Value Framework developed by Her Majesty's Treasury in 2019 could offer some insights.55 The Public Value Framework's goal is to change how a department thinks about, plans for, and reports on "value for money". Instead of just focusing on quantifying inputs and outputs and observing the relationship between them, the framework also focuses on improving the public value of public money. This includes how organisations:

  • pursue and monitor their overall goals;
  • manage their financial inputs;
  • support long-term sustainability; and
  • engage citizens and users to understand their needs and gain their support.

Guidance on the framework recognises that engaging with citizens and demonstrating that engagement will be new and challenging for most public organisations. However, it is critical to creating public value and demonstrating that public money is spent well.56

At a whole-of-government level, more regular and integrated accountability information that demonstrates a wider set of public sector attributes and priorities would help Parliament and the public understand what the public sector does and the difference it is making. For example, the financial statements of Government could be accompanied by performance information that provides insights into the impacts and outcomes the Government is achieving.

Incorporating these wider attributes into forward-looking studies and reviews would also help Parliament and the public to understand and plan for future challenges and opportunities. For example, the Treasury has already started thinking about how its Living Standards Framework could be incorporated into its long-term view of the Government's fiscal position.57

Effective consultation with the public (such as the process led by Statistics New Zealand to develop the Indicators Aotearoa New Zealand database of well-being indicators58) could help ensure a well-informed and generally accepted report or presentation of performance. One of the people we interviewed told us that involving the public in co-developing a reporting process and format could be an important part of effective public accountability. Recent research suggests that more meaningful and useful accountability information can be achieved through co-producing measures with stakeholders.59

Creating the right forums for discussion and debate

Today, there is an increasing emphasis among researchers on approaching accountability "as a dialogue between stakeholders on a given subject, rather than the simple reporting of a result to be taken at face value and judged as such".60

For accountability information to be properly discussed and debated, different ways of presenting information are necessary. We think there is value in a more proactive approach to engaging communities and seeking their feedback.

Most public organisations today use their websites and other social media to communicate directly with the public and their stakeholders on operational matters. Public organisations can also use these particular channels to provide accountability information and interact with the public.

However, presenting information online can be challenging in a world where information and disinformation is everywhere. Maintaining public trust and confidence might require different approaches to providing information so people can have confidence in it. These approaches could include the use of integrity, ethical, or social audits.61

How does the public sector create the right forums for discussion and debate in a way that meets the needs of Parliament and the expectations of different communities? How can Parliament's limited capacity be used more effectively in its scrutiny role? Can technology provide alternative channels for more public participation?

We discuss some ideas that could help answer these questions.

Strengthening parliamentary scrutiny and engagement

As discussed in Part 2, the Standing Orders Committee reviewed Parliament's processes, procedures, and practices. There was a particular focus on maintaining "legitimacy in the eyes of the public"62 and encouraging more public understanding, engagement, and input.

Parliament could support more effective public accountability by requesting more relevant and accessible information from the public sector. In Canada, the Government has a "GC InfoBase", which is a web-based interactive tool that summarises complex, whole-of-government data into simple visual stories. "GC InfoBase" was created in 2013 in response to a request from the Canadian Parliament for better access to information on government finances and to meet public demand for simpler government reporting.63

Boston, Bagnall, and Barry observe that New Zealand has a small Parliament compared with many, similar-sized, democracies. Therefore, members of Parliament are sometimes "stretched thinly" across multiple committees.64 Some of the people we interviewed also suggested that Parliament's ability to effectively scrutinise the Government and the public sector can at times be limited because of Parliament's capacity and capability. To strengthen its representation and scrutiny role, Parliament could consider using technologies to improve public participation.

Insights could be gained by looking at an online platform called vTaiwan, which was created in 2014. Although its potential uses are still being explored, it provides a place where government ministries, elected representatives, scholars, experts, business leaders, civil society organisations, and citizens can discuss specific topics and proposed legislation on a large scale. According to the website, the platform helps lawmakers implement decisions with a greater degree of legitimacy by bringing together people from various backgrounds to "engage in rational discussion on national issues".65

In Spain, a similar online platform called Decide Madrid provides a place for the public to participate in decision-making.66 Madrid residents can propose new laws and residents can vote on the proposals. The platform also supports citizens participating in public sector budgeting and other consultation processes.

Strengthening the agencies that support accountability

Although the current public accountability system for central government is centred on Parliament, it operates and is supported by many different agencies. These include boards of Crown entities, separate monitoring agencies, monitoring teams in departments, central agencies, and Officers of Parliament.

All public organisations, including local government, will have some accountability relationship with one or more of these agencies. How they operate, what methodologies they adopt, and the scope of their mandate can have significant implications for the effectiveness of the public accountability system as a whole.

Once again, insights could be gained by looking at the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act. The Act's focus on achieving well-being outcomes means a different way of working for public organisations, particularly in integration, prevention, involvement, collaboration, and long-term thinking. These new attributes of well-being success require new ways of gaining assurance and oversight over that work.

The Welsh Audit Office has developed a new set of audit tools to assess the well-being aspirations of public organisations. Furthermore, a Future Generations Commissioner was established to, among other things, review public organisations' annual reports on well-being. Public services boards were introduced to develop useful relationships with communities, and local overview and scrutiny committees were set up to review the decisions and actions of those public services boards.

The Public Service Act and other proposed reforms will change aspects of how the public sector works and what information is important to demonstrate its success. How agencies monitor public organisations and spending will need to reflect these changes.

The approach, form, and timing of the assurance provided by these agencies might also need to be more customised and tailored depending on whether the attention is on, for example, individual or collective performance, compliance, or other valuable concepts, such as integrity.

Appropriate judgements and consequences

During our interviews, we heard that consequences are the "elephant in the room" for those who work in the public sector. However, for Parliament and the public, consequences can also be seen as the final, and sometimes the most fundamental, step in public accountability being carried out.

What the most appropriate consequences are will depend on the objectives of the accountability arrangement and the intent and impact of the outcome on the parties involved. For example, the private sector company that has the trust strategy and roadmap we noted earlier in this Part (see paragraph 4.32) told us that a central part of the trust strategy and roadmap is that consequences arising from any failures are expected, accepted, and learned from.

The Public Service Act enables chief executives to work together towards a common outcome through, for example, interdepartmental executive boards. Chief executives therefore could be individually and jointly responsible to various Ministers. What consequences, if any, should apply, what will trigger them, and how they will be imposed are important questions when considering whether the accountability arrangement will motivate the right collective behaviours and outcomes. Working towards common outcomes will most likely involve a network of partnerships with stakeholders outside of the public sector, including communities. Therefore, the executive board might seek to hold itself accountable in some way to those other stakeholders.

What consequences should apply when outcomes, working relationships, and accountabilities are shared? How will these be balanced against traditional individual accountabilities? Should these consequences be punitive, motivational, or both?

We discuss some ideas that could help answer some of these questions.

A focus on what went wrong rather than who caused the problem

A consequences framework that focuses on what went wrong instead of who caused the problem could be more useful to balance "punitive" and "motivational" consequences.

Punitive and motivational consequences are not mutually exclusive. Punitive consequences might be appropriate for parties that are self-interested, in full control, or carry out reckless or malicious actions leading to an adverse outcome. However, where parties have a shared goal, control of that goal is unclear, or where an outcome occurs because of unintentional error, then more motivating or learning consequences, such as a public acknowledgement, an independent review, or an expert intervention, might be appropriate.

Insights could be gained by looking at how the aviation sector uses a "just culture" framework to provide a more consistent, open, and fair approach to what consequences apply from certain behaviours and intentions. For example, Figure 6 shows the Civil Aviation Authority's range of consequences (responses) arising from certain behaviours.

Figure 6
The Civil Aviation Authority's "just culture" framework of consequences

The framework is about how best to respond to different behaviours with the type of response dependant on the behaviour itself and the intent of the decision made.

Behaviour Description Response (options)
Human error Unintentional (e.g. slip, lapse). Console

Remedial action
At-risk Knowing deviation from a rule, procedure, or standard practice.

Aware of risk, though believed to be insignificant or justified.

Intentional action but unintended outcome.

Remedial action
Repetitive at-risk Choice to continue to deviate from rule, procedure, or standard practice. Remedial action

Punitive action
Reckless Conscious disregard of substantial or unjustifiable risk.

Intentional action with probable outcome (though individual might overestimate own control).
Punitive action

Source: Civil Aviation Authority, see

A consequences framework could also assist with identifying the appropriate response to shortcomings in competence, reliability, and honesty. For example, a lack of honesty might result in a more punitive consequence than a lack of competence or performance because the impact on trust and confidence is likely to be greater.

An appropriate framework could also provide more clarity and understanding and, in doing so, encourage people to be open about failure as much as success.

Rethinking the role of an audit within such a framework could be another way of encouraging the right behaviours and outcomes when providing assurance about the stewardship of more complex, intractable problems or in times of urgency or crisis. Our Office has used a few real-time audit approaches. For example, instead of one single set of findings at the end of the audit, a series of staged findings can be given to the audited organisation. This allows the organisation to use those findings in a more timely way and for the audit to convey the progress an organisation has made rather than only highlighting deficiencies. An example of this approach was our assurance of the Government's gun buy-back scheme in 2019, where we provided insights to the New Zealand Police on the effectiveness and efficiency of the scheme as the work was being carried out.

Considering and agreeing on an appropriate set of consequences is the final step in establishing effective public accountability. If done correctly, it should encourage the people involved to be more transparent even when failures occur.

In the next Part, we consider the future of public accountability and what change could look like.

46: McKinsey and Company (2010), "How do I manage the complexity in my organization?" Insights into Organisation, page 3.

47: Cabinet paper (June 2019), Joined-up approach to the regional arm of government, page 10, at

48: Cabinet paper (June 2019), Joined-up approach to the regional arm of government, pagses 4 and 9, at

49: Welsh Government (2016), Shared Purpose: Shared Future Statutory guidance on the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, (SPFS 1), pages 3 and 17.

50: Dormer, R (2018), Unpublished research on the Welsh reforms.

51: See the Explanatory note in the Public Service Legislation Bill.

52: For information on the Canadian Inherent Rights Policy of 1995 and the Government of Canada's Approach to Implementation of the Inherent Right and the Negotiation of Aboriginal Self-Government, see

53: For example, see section 8.1 of the Constitution of Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation at or section 7.11-12 of the Constitution of Selkirk First Nation constitution at

54: As part of our 2021/22 work programme, we will be exploring some perspectives from Māori about what effective public accountability looks like. This might include comparing and contrasting Māori perspectives on accountability with other perspectives.

55: Her Majesty's Treasury (2019), The Public Value Framework: with supplementary guidance, at

56: Her Majesty's Treasury (2019), The Public Value Framework: with supplementary guidance, page 33, at

57: The Treasury (2016), He Tirohanga Mokopuna: 2016 Statement on the Long-Term Fiscal Position

58: Statistics New Zealand (2018), Indicators Aotearoa New Zealand – Ngā Tūtohu Aotearoa, consulting with New Zealanders, at

59: Yang, C and Northcott, D (2019), "Together we measure: Improving public service outcomes via the co-production of performance measurement", Public Money and Management, Vol 39:4, page 253.

60: Kerveillant, M and Lorino, P (2020), "Dialogical and situated accountability to the public. The reporting of nuclear incidents", Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal, page 1.

61: Social auditing has been described as the process of evaluating, reporting on, and improving an organisation's performance and behaviour and measuring its effects on society.

62: Standing Orders Committee (2020), Review of Standing Orders 2020: Report of the Standing Orders Committee, page 5, at

63: The GC Infobase is at

64: Boston J, Bagnall, D, and Barry, A (2019), Foresight, insight and oversight: Enhancing long-term governance through better parliamentary scrutiny, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, page 71.

65: The vTaiwan project page is at

66: For more information on Decide Madrid see