Part 5: The future of public accountability

Building a stronger public accountability system for New Zealanders

Part 4 showed how public organisations here and internationally are exploring ways to improve their connection, engagement, and, ultimately, accountability to citizens and other stakeholders.

In this Part, we recap what we have found and consider what long-term success could look like for a more citizen-centred public accountability system. From this perspective, the future of public accountability might be found in its responsiveness, relevance, and accessibility, more so than in its processes, structures, or institutions.

What have we learned so far?

Our research suggests that the public accountability system is not working as well as it could. Although it is not broken, in an increasingly diverse, dynamic, and connected society, the public accountability system can seem narrowly focused on what is important to the public sector, rigid in its processes and the way it is applied, and disconnected from the public. Other research and commentary also supports this view.

Our findings suggest that, for many in the public sector, public accountability might be losing its relevance. Increasingly it is seen as an inconvenient and compliance-driven process.

Public accountability must put New Zealanders front and centre. It needs to provide clear processes that allow Parliament and the public to easily understand what the public sector does and, more importantly, engage with that information and act on it.

Greater transparency and reporting will not be enough to provide effective public accountability if the underlying processes do not:

  • start with an understanding of what is important to Parliament and the public through more effective accountability relationships;
  • reflect a clear and agreed vision and strategy for effective public accountability;
  • provide the flexibility to tailor, integrate, and align accountability information in a way that meets the expectations of Parliament and the public;
  • broaden and strengthen the channels for debate and discussion with Parliament and the public; and
  • use consequences that are clear, understood, fair, and provide appropriate incentives or sanctions.

The current public accountability system is built on a set of principles that include a strict principal/agent relationship, transparency, efficient use of information, and contestability.67 An effective public accountability system for the future might require other more citizen-focused principles as a guide. These could include being responsive, relevant, and accessible to Parliament and the public.

A more responsive, relevant, and accessible public accountability system

A more responsive and relevant public accountability system relies on informed relationships between the public service, Parliament and the public.

A more responsive public accountability system might include:

  • public organisations seeking a two-way engagement with Parliament and the public about what success looks like in managing the current sector-based reforms (see Part 2), and how Parliament and the public would like to be kept informed about progress;
  • more mutual or shared expectations and objectives between the public and the public sector. For example, this could happen where there is co-development and co-ownership of outcomes with communities and sharing responsibility for the outcome's progress;68
  • a wider range of public accountability objectives reflecting what is important to Parliament and the public – for example, objectives that not only help deliver services or outcomes but also promote good public sector behaviours, participation, involvement, and collaboration (see Part 2); and
  • public organisations seeking to better understand Māori values and perspectives and proactively embedding them, including in how they hold themselves accountable.

A more relevant public accountability system might include:

  • public organisations describing, analysing, and presenting accountability information in different ways so it is more meaningful and useful to particular stakeholders;
  • regular, integrated, and independently assured whole-of-government reporting on government priorities and the opportunities and challenges for supporting intergenerational outcomes in the short, medium, and longer term;
  • co-ordinated and tailored analysis and scrutiny that supports Parliament and the public in understanding the competence, reliability, and honesty of public organisations, sectors, and the whole of government through investigations, evaluations, reviews, and monitoring;
  • a different set of independent assurance products that provide Parliament and the public with confidence to use a broader range of information for accountability and decision-making purposes. This could include integrity or social audits; and
  • a framework for consequences that provides clear guidance for decision-making that the public sector and the public understand, and which reflects the intent and impact of what could occur.

A more accessible public accountability system means that Parliament and the public have the means, and are actively encouraged, to discuss and debate what information is presented and are listened to. It is about public organisations being clear, open, inclusive, engaging, and receptive.

A more accessible public accountability system might include:

  • more proactive management and guidance to minimise complexity and increase the public accountability system's alignment with the systems of public finance and public management;
  • greater awareness and understanding of the public accountability system by Parliament and the public about what it is designed to achieve and the principles that guide it;
  • clear, relevant, and timely coverage of progress on complex challenges combined with opportunities for public discussion, debate, and feedback;
  • using regional agencies and local government to better understand what communities expect from policies once they are implemented and how they would like to be kept assured and informed about progress;
  • greater use of technology and new or enhanced institutions to support parliamentary scrutiny and improve public participation and involvement; and
  • different methodologies and review processes by monitoring agencies that consider, for example, how well public organisations are accountable to Parliament and the public.

The opportunity and challenge

Changes to the way the public sector operates have already begun. In the last few years we have seen a new Public Service Act, well-being amendments to the Public Finance Act 1989, and amendments to the Local Government Act 2002 (reinstating the focus on economic, social, cultural, and environmental well-being in councils' decision-making processes). The Treasury has also proposed a programme to consider wider public finance reform to support system stewardship, and Parliament's 2020 Review of Standing Orders seeks to encourage more public understanding, engagement, and input into parliamentary processes.

The changes in the public sector all point to an ongoing and substantial shift to meet the public's expectations. This shift is not just a focus on wellbeing outcomes, it involves the public sector acting as stewards for complex societal challenges. For reform to be successful, long-term stewardship needs to be as important as short-term management, relationships with communities need to be as important as relationships with Ministers, and how the public sector works and behaves needs to be as important as what is delivered.

The opportunities for change discussed in this paper will require a fundamental shift away from what is important for the public sector and towards what is important for Parliament and the public. It will require public accountability to be thought of as a system separate from, but aligned with, the public finance and public management systems. It will also require public organisations to reconsider how they currently meet their accountability obligations.

Finding the right balance for an effective 21st century public accountability system will be challenging. Simply adding new accountability arrangements to existing ones will not necessarily work. It will likely increase the complexity and cost for public organisations. When discussing reform in New Zealand's performance management system, Gill noted that the "addition of new features to an already cluttered system without removing other components … is likely to make system performance worse".69

Balancing the essential features of the public accountability system with changes that are needed to meet the expectations of Parliament and the public could also create tensions about what to focus on – for example, between performance or behaviours, effectiveness or efficiency, punitive or motivational consequences, and control or flexibility.

Providing effective public accountability is fundamental to the long-term success of the public sector and to maintaining the public's trust and confidence in our representative democracy. The current, largely one-size-fits-all approach to public organisations' performance, is important but no longer enough. Public accountability will need to demonstrate a different set of attributes, in different ways, and to different audiences.

Parliament could advocate for this process of change to ensure that the public it represents gets the accountability it deserves. As Botsman has observed, "there's plenty of trust out there. It just isn't where it used to be".70

67: The Treasury (1987), Government management: Briefing to incoming government, Volume 1, chapter 1, page 48.

68: In our 2018 report Sea Change – Tai Timu Tai Pari: Creating a marine spatial plan for the Hauraki Gulf we highlighted the benefits (and challenges) of taking a stakeholder-led collaborative approach to planning for a healthy, productive, and sustainable future for the Hauraki Gulf/Tīkapa Moana.

69: Gill, D, et al (2011), The Iron Cage Recreated – The performance management of state organisations in New Zealand, Institute of Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, page 519.

70: Botsman, R (2017), "Trust in 2030 – from institutions to individuals", World Economic Forum, Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils, 10 November 2017.