What to expect during an inquiry

In the second of our blogs about our inquiry work, Inquiries Manager David Lemmon explains what people can expect from us when we carry out inquiry work and what we expect from those involved…

Stack of filesAn inquiry can take many forms. It can be anything from a smaller, more straightforward series of questions to a complex investigation taking some weeks or months. What form it takes depends on how serious the issue is and what might be involved in getting to the bottom of it. Depending on the situation, we might publish a description of the work we intend to do and the reasons why we’re doing it.

We might also make the results of our work public. There are different ways we might do this – for example, tabling a report in Parliament, or publishing a letter outlining the results of our work on our website. Sometimes we write to the person who contacted us on a confidential basis if that is appropriate in the situation. 

What we expect from ourselves

Whatever the work entails, we aim to be fair and reasonable. In a legal sense, this is adhering to good administrative law principles and natural justice (which, as a lawyer, I’m duty bound to mention at some point).

In practical terms, this means two things. The first is that we will do our work in a fair and reasonable way. We’ll make it clear what issues we’re asking about and what information we’re seeking. Sometimes an inquiry will include interviewing people who have been involved in events or who may have information we need. Those interviews might include talking to people not employed by the organisation. Before the interview, we usually outline what the issues are, what we’ll be asking about, and, if it helps, provide some background material.

The second thing is that our conclusions are fair, balanced, and reasonable. Because inquiry work can often look at the actions or decisions of individuals, we make sure those individuals who might be affected by what we might say are given an opportunity to read and comment on our draft report before it’s finalised.

We also aim to be as timely as possible with our work. No two pieces of inquiry work are the same and it may be that some take longer than others to complete. That said, we aim to produce work that is relevant and useful to the public sector to help it improve – which is enhanced by being as timely as we can.

What we expect from others

As well as expecting things from ourselves, we have some expectations of those who might be involved in our work.

Our work is based on being able to access and consider information held by public organisations and other people, and it’s important that we’re able to do that. Public organisations are required to provide any information that the Auditor-General requests, such as documents relating to the performance and exercise of their functions, duties, and powers. As well as this obligation, we have the power to obtain information from a public organisation or any person, examine people on oath if that is necessary, inspect bank accounts in certain situations, and get access to premises.

It’s in the public interest for us to see how the public sector has used its resources and be able to report that to the extent we need to. We encourage all organisations to provide clear and prompt answers to questions we have and requests for information. If there’s any supporting information, we encourage that to be provided as well.

If it’s clear to us that the issues or concerns we have are being addressed by the organisation in some other way, it’s possible that we might decide not to do more work of our own. On the other hand, if we get unclear or evasive answers, or aren’t satisfied that an issue is being appropriately managed by the organisation, we may decide that more work needs to be done to find answers to our questions.

If an organisation is prepared for questions and to engage with our inquiry, it’s likely our work will be completed sooner. Avoiding unnecessary delays will help us complete our work. It’s fair enough that people and organisations may want to consider their position, seek advice on it if required, and how they might respond to us. If I was in their shoes, I’d want to do the same. However, doing that does not need to extend to causing an unnecessary delay in our inquiries process.

We think it’s valuable that we’re able to share the results of our work in a timely way. Doing so allows us to share our findings and lessons with the wider public sector so other organisations can make any improvements in light of those lessons. It is everyone’s interests that sharing those lessons is not hampered. 

Confidentiality

As part of our work, we might provide information or documents to people on a confidential basis. An example of this is where we provide a draft report to affected parties for their comment before it is finalised. In those situations, it’s important that the confidential nature of those documents is respected and the documents aren’t disclosed to other parties. It’s possible that draft facts and findings may change in light of further evidence and disclosing them risks being unfair to those parties or disclosing something which is not accurate.

Over the coming months, I’ll be blogging about other aspects of our inquiries work so keep an eye on this blog and our social media channels. If there’s anything you’d like me to cover, please leave a comment below. More information about our inquiry work and process or about the other work carried out by the office that can be found on our website. 

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