Auditor-General's overview

Inquiry into immigration matters (Volume 1): Visa and permit decision-making and other issues.

In May 2008, the then Prime Minister and the then Minister of Immigration asked me to carry out an inquiry into Immigration New Zealand, which is part of the Department of Labour (the Department). Several concerns and allegations had been publicly raised about the integrity of Immigration New Zealand’s operations.

I agreed to the request and directed my inquiry team to take a wide scope with this inquiry. Many of the allegations were about the actions of the by-then former Deputy Secretary in charge of Immigration New Zealand. However, there were some allegations of systemic issues within Immigration New Zealand. I wanted assurance that this was not the case.

My inquiry team investigated specific allegations about individuals and sections of Immigration New Zealand and carried out an extensive inquiry. They looked at the integrity and probity of Immigration New Zealand’s systems, processes, and practices for deciding who will be issued with a visa or permit.

I am pleased to report that my inquiry team did not find widespread integrity and probity issues. The Immigration New Zealand staff with whom my inquiry team met were generally conscientious about their work, honest, and eager to act in good faith when making visa and permit decisions.

However, the inquiry has identified a need for the Department to improve the systems and processes that Immigration New Zealand uses to support Immigration Officers and Visa Officers with making visa and permit decisions. It has also identified some organisational issues that are of concern to me.

Main inquiry findings

Excessive variation between branches

My inquiry team visited 10 Immigration New Zealand branches, interviewed about 100 staff, and looked at more than 400 visa and permit decisions. My team found substantial variation in:

  • the overall quality of the visa and permit decisions that were made;
  • the job-specific training provided to staff;
  • the use of delegations;
  • the approaches the branches used to reduce backlogs;
  • the systems and practices each branch used to make decisions (including how they assessed risk, how much and how information was documented, and how staff verified evidence submitted to support a visa or permit application); and
  • the processes used to check the quality of the visa and permit decisions that were made.

In my view, the quality assurance processes are inadequate and cannot effectively inform the Department about the overall quality of the visa and permit decisions that are made.

Immigration New Zealand’s worldwide network of branches means that there are different local issues and challenges for staff to contend with. Some degree of modification to suit local circumstances is necessary and even desirable, because it is impractical to use a "one size fits all" approach to making visa and permit decisions. However, in my view, there should be a clear set of core systems and approaches with steps and checks that cannot be circumvented without appropriate approval. Given the same general circumstances, visa or permit applications should be decided in similar ways in different branches.

Targets focused on quantity and not quality

I am concerned that the performance targets within Immigration New Zealand’s branches focused unduly on the number of visas and permits issued. Branches had few targets for the quality of the decisions made. This meant that staff who were under pressure to meet quantity targets had incentives to approve visas and permits rather than decline them. This may have had a detrimental effect on the quality of the decisions made and, in some instances, had clearly damaged staff morale.

Culture in which staff do not feel safe enough to raise concerns

The reluctance of Immigration New Zealand staff to raise workplace concerns is an especially troubling finding. My inquiry team was surprised to learn that the integrity allegations that prompted this inquiry were well known within Immigration New Zealand. The Department needs to introduce effective processes and foster a workplace culture for staff to safely raise work-related concerns, and have those concerns addressed.

Adverse consequences of a “silo” culture and poor management practices

Some organisational context factors seem to have contributed to the substantial variation and inconsistency that we found with immigration practices and the quality of decisions. Common themes emerging from my inquiry included the “silo” culture operating in the Department and some poor management practices between 2004 and 2007. These factors may have contributed to insufficient attention being given to Immigration New Zealand’s day-to-day operations. They may also help to explain poor sharing of information and good practice throughout Immigration New Zealand, and the relative isolation of some of its business groups – especially its Pacific Division.

Problems in the Pacific Division

The Pacific Division was established early in 2005 with a mandate and strategic direction that was not clearly understood within Immigration New Zealand. There were no plans made before the Pacific Division started operating to ensure that it had sufficient resources and capability to perform its functions. The Pacific Division operated in isolation from the rest of Immigration New Zealand and adherence to proper processes was sometimes poor. A cumulative effect of these factors was a significantly lower quality of visa and permit decisions made in the Pacific Division compared with other parts of Immigration New Zealand.

My inquiry team also found that the residual places policies were poorly implemented in 2004/05.

The Department had known about the problems in the Pacific Division. In my view, the Department did not recognise and deal effectively or early enough with the cumulative picture of concern that was building. I note, however, that the current Secretary of Labour (the Department’s chief executive) commissioned a review in 2008. He is now considering options for the Pacific Division’s structure and responding to the recommendations of that review.

I do not want the findings of this report to detract unnecessarily from the achievements of the Pacific Division, which were raised by some of the people my inquiry team spoke with and have been identified in other reviews.

What others knew and did about the integrity allegations

Another focus of my inquiry was to investigate what the Department, the State Services Commission (SSC), and Ministers knew and did about the allegations of improper handling of visa and residence applications for relatives of Mary Anne Thompson. Ms Thompson was the Deputy Secretary of the Department in charge of Immigration New Zealand.

I agree with the conclusions of the SSC investigation into these matters, released in late 2008. Ms Thompson failed to appropriately manage the conflict of interest relating to the applications of her relatives, and the Department was deficient in handling the applications and in responding to the allegations. The SSC had only limited knowledge of the integrity allegations within the Department.

Before 2008, Ministers were also briefed in general terms about the Department’s investigations and were not informed of any particular integrity issues. The briefings were only for their information, and reflected Graham Fortune’s1 and Christopher Blake’s2 limited knowledge at relevant times. The operational matters being investigated had an employment dimension, and Ministers were careful to avoid any perception of improper interference on their part in employment matters. Ministers did not take inappropriate action and they did not fail to act when they should have.

Concluding comments

Immigration New Zealand has staff who are generally conscientious, honest, and eager to act in good faith. They need and deserve to be better supported by guidance, systems, and processes that are determined centrally, and open to local modification but only in clearly demarcated ways. Given the amount of discretion and judgement required to make good quality visa and permit decisions – and the importance of those decisions to the country – the staff also need a workplace culture in which they feel safe to voice any concerns.

I am encouraged to learn that the Department is acting to address many of the issues identified in this report.

I wish to thank the nearly 200 people who assisted and co-operated during this inquiry, including many current and former Department staff, SSC officials, Ministers, and members of the public who submitted information to us. I appreciated the time and effort that Department staff willingly devoted to helping my inquiry team with its work.

Kevin Brady's signature

K B Brady
Controller and Auditor-General

27 May 2009

1: Graham Fortune was acting chief executive from May to October 2007.

2: Christopher Blake was appointed chief executive in October 2007.

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