Part 2: Understanding public sector accountability

Public sector accountability through raising concerns.

In this Part, we:

Public sector accountability concepts and principles

Accountability is an important element of good government. It is about the relationship between the State and its citizens, and the extent to which the State is answerable for its actions. The concept of accountability refers to the legal and reporting framework, organisational structure, strategy, procedures, and actions to help ensure that any organisations that use public money and make decisions that affect people's lives can be held responsible for their actions.

Public sector accountability is not led by any one agency but a range of entities, agencies, and institutions. For example, accountability for overseeing how public resources are used involves members of Parliament, public entities, courts and tribunals, inquiry agencies, and, often, monitoring by civil society groups and the media.

The principles and concepts important to public sector accountability include transparency, fairness, integrity, and trust.


Effective public debate requires transparency, which strengthens public sector accountability and promotes fairer and more effective and efficient governance. In the context of this report, transparency refers to a public entity's openness about its activities − the extent to which it provides information about what it is doing, where and how this takes place, and how it is performing.

Transparency includes responding to requests for information. It is about providing people with the information they need to engage in the decisions that affect them. In that way, transparency is an ongoing dialogue between a public entity and its stakeholders about the provision of information. In New Zealand, individuals have powerful rights to transparency. These rights are enshrined in the Official Information Act 1982.


In a public sector accountability context, integrity is about exercising power in a way that is true to the values, purposes, and duties for which that power is entrusted to or held by public entities and individual officer-holders.

Transparency International reports on 12 "pillars" that represent the main governance systems operating in a country, to assess whether they function well and in balance with each other to prevent the abuse of power.4

In its last assessment, Transparency International found that New Zealand's integrity system (our "institutions, laws, procedures, practices and attitudes that encourage and support integrity in the exercise of power")5 remains fundamentally strong. But our system faces increasing challenges. Transparency International concluded that New Zealand should take protecting and promoting integrity more seriously.


The concept of fairness is about dealing with a matter in an equitable and unbiased manner. In practice, it means that inquiry agencies act independently and with an open mind, and that they consider all relevant information carefully and without undue delay. In most instances, acting fairly will also include giving the party that is subject to the grievance a chance to comment on any adverse findings against them before a final decision is made.


The essence of trust is consistency between what is said and what is done. When parties act fairly, transparently, and with integrity consistently over time, each party comes to know what to expect from each other. From this, the parties learn that they can rely on one another and can develop trusting relationships. Public reporting by public entities on their performance can influence the degree of trust in the public services that are being delivered and the public entities that deliver them.

Parliament's scrutiny of public entity performance

Parliamentary scrutiny of public entity performance is important because it helps to demonstrate whether public entities can account for what they have done and what they have achieved.

At its most simple, the work of public entities follows a regular annual cycle of:

  • planning – deciding which activities to carry out, including identifying priorities and performance goals;
  • performing – doing the planned activities to agreed standards of quality, cost, and timeliness;
  • reporting – describing the results of the work carried out, demonstrating economy, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness; and
  • scrutiny – reports are reviewed to ensure that public entities are properly accounting for their performance.

As part of the reporting phase, Budget information, statements of intent, and period-end financial and service performance reports are provided to members of Parliament. These set out:

  • what the Government is trying to achieve;
  • the goods and services the Government buys to achieve these outcomes;
  • the cost of producing these goods and services;
  • the financial performance expected from departments, State-owned enterprises, and Crown entities; and
  • the actual service and financial performance achieved.

The scrutiny phase follows these reports. New Zealand's select committee system enables members of Parliament to look at matters in more detail than is possible in the House of Representatives. Select committees examine the Government's spending and the performance and operations of Government departments, Crown entities, and State-owned enterprises. They do this by reviewing the Budget and end-of-year information, commenting on them, and reporting to Parliament.

Select committees can also provide the public with an opportunity to comment on and suggest changes to draft legislation, and to participate in other Parliamentary functions, such as inquiries. They also report to Parliament on reports received from the Officers of Parliament (such as our Office).

Complaint processes

Sometimes, people are unhappy with a public entity's decisions or actions. In these instances, their first step is to make their complaint or raise their concern directly with the relevant public entity.

Members of the public have rights to information that are enshrined in legislation. With that information, they are able to comment, make complaints, or raise concerns, and expect the public entity they have been dealing with to hear them. Enabling people to do this is an important aspect of public sector accountability. Complaints are a mechanism through which people can query a decision, action, or policy, and look to receive an adequate response to their complaint or concern. How an organisation manages complaints is a useful barometer of its commitment to service delivery that meets people's needs.

As well as resolving a person's complaint or concern, a public entity can benefit from investing in an effective complaint process. For example, complaints can provide valuable insight into poor service, systemic errors, or problems with specific processes, and can prompt a public entity to improve its business.

Handling complaints well can help a public entity to resolve a problem quickly and before it becomes worse. It allows the public entity to learn from the problems that arise and take steps to improve internal processes. Handling complaints well and monitoring them effectively can also:

  • reassure people that the public entity is committed to resolving problems and improving relations with the public;
  • save time and money before complaints multiply and escalate to the point where external intervention may be sought; and
  • improve the public entity's transparency and accountability.

For a complaint process to work well, public entities need to make it easy to access and understand. Complaints also need to be thoughtfully analysed, openly reported, and acted on. Complainants can make public entities' complaint processes work well by providing the public entity with relevant − and as complete as possible − information about their complaint.

In 2012, the Ombudsman identified the following principles on which to model an effective complaint process:

  • fairness − complaints are dealt with on their merits in an equitable, objective, and unbiased way;
  • accessibility − the complaint process is easy for complainants to access and understand;
  • responsiveness − complaints are acknowledged in a timely manner and addressed promptly and the complainant is kept informed throughout the process; and
  • efficiency.6

Although people have a right to comment, make complaints, and raise concerns, this right is not unlimited. When a public entity demonstrates that it has carefully considered and responded to a complaint, it should be able to make a final decision and close the complaint file. A sound and effective complaint process can help public entities to give this assurance and closure to a complainant even if the person disagrees with the entity's final decision.

Seeking resolution through other means

Sometimes, after complaining to a public entity, people are not satisfied with the outcome. When this happens, a range of options are available. Figure 1 summarises these options, which include taking the matter to an inquiry agency, using a Parliamentary mechanism, or accessing the justice system.

Figure 1
Options for people who want to make a complaint or raise a concern about a public entity

Figure 1 Options for people who want to make a complaint or raise a concern about a public entity.

4: For more information about the 12 pillars, see Transparency International's website,

5: Transparency International (2013) Integrity Plus 2013 New Zealand National Integrity System Assessment, Wellington, page 5, available at Transparency International's website,

6: The Ombudsman (2012), Effective complaint handling, Wellington, page 5, available on the Ombudsman's website,