A public accountability system for New Zealanders

Our Office is carrying out research and work on New Zealand's public accountability system. Marcus Jackson explains why we are doing this.

Candle flameThere’s a Chinese proverb about doing something to solve a problem rather than just complaining about it: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness”.

But what if lighting that candle isn’t showing you everything you need to see?

In 2019, we published our first paper about the future of public accountability. The paper highlighted the complexities of public accountability, how it evolves, and the ongoing criticisms about the way the Government and the public sector are held accountable by the public and Parliament.

We have just published two follow-up papers. These are Building a stronger public accountability system for New Zealanders and The problems, progress, and potential of performance reporting.

Both papers support the findings in our first paper. They suggest that, in our increasingly diverse, dynamic, and connected society, the way the public sector reports its performance, and is accountable, has become disconnected from New Zealanders. In other words, what the public sector shines its light on is not always what the public or Parliament wants to see.

In his book Managing Performance in the Public Sector, Hans de Bruijn offers us a relevant and valuable insight by using an analogy of floodlighting a statue. He says: “Illuminating the statue from several different perspectives creates a different image each time. Each image is correct but a single perspective always gives a distorted image.”

So how can we shed more light on what the public and Parliament want to see? This question underlies both of our two follow-up papers.

To help find some answers, as part of our research into the public accountability system, we asked members of the public what they would like to see, and those who work in the public sector what they thought about how public accountability worked in practice.

What we heard was that while the public accountability system has strengths, more could be done to focus on the things that matter to Parliament and the public. This means not only highlighting what services and outcomes are delivered but also whether they are delivered in a collaborative, fair, citizen-focused, and inclusive way. 

These suggestions align well with recent public sector reforms. For example, the Public Service Act 2020 affirms the need for the public service to act with a spirit of service to the community. It also recognises the public service’s role in supporting the Crown’s relationship with Māori under Te Tiriti o Waitangi. At the heart of all these reforms is a desire to shift the way the public sector thinks and works.

The current system also has strengths and we do not want to lose those. For example, the financial statements of the Government remain world class, as does the public financial system that underpins them. However, if we want to shine a new light on the public sector, understanding how public organisations can demonstrate competence, reliability, and honesty to Parliament and the public is a good place to start.

None of this will be easy, but it is critical if the public sector is to continue to build and maintain the trust and confidence of New Zealanders.

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