Part 5: Accessibility, effectiveness, and collaboration

Public sector accountability through raising concerns.

In this Part, we discuss:

Accessing public entities and inquiry agencies

Complaining to public entities

Public entities are at the heart of public sector accountability. However, raising a matter with the relevant public entity in the first instance can be difficult.

As part of our 2014 report about how the Ministry of Social Development (the Ministry) deals with complaints, we surveyed people who had complained to the Ministry. Most people surveyed said that their complaint was resolved and that the Ministry's final decision was fair. However, we found that some information on the Ministry's website was difficult to understand and could cause confusion about how to lodge complaints.

In 2014, we also reported on how the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) deals with complaints. We found that ACC needed to make information about how to make a complaint easier to find, and that it needed to make the information it provided more helpful and easier to understand.

As part of our work for this report, we tested how easy it was to get help when faced with a particular problem with a public entity. Some of our staff received a scenario where they disagreed with the decision of a public entity. We asked them who they could go to for help or to challenge the decision. The participants found that:

  • None of the public entities provided information that gave clear and easy-to-find directions about how to start the complaint process or who to complain to.
  • All participants said that the information on the public entities' websites was difficult to understand and that the language tended to be too legalistic.
  • Some found the amount of information on the public entities' websites overwhelming – they did not know where to start and thought that it would be tempting to give up.

Although there were mixed experiences in terms of difficulty, the overall consensus was that the process was not as easy as people thought it would or should be. The main difficulty was inaccessible language and little or no information explaining the process for challenging a decision.

Making a complaint to or raising a concern with an inquiry agency

In our view, it can be difficult to work out where people can go after they have exhausted all of the relevant public entity's review and complaint processes and remain dissatisfied. If they do find the right inquiry agency, it can be difficult to find out what its mandate covers, what its processes are, and how it can help (for example, whether it can overturn decisions or ask the public entity to reconsider its decision).

Inquiry agencies told us that they are aware that people find it difficult to know where to go when they want to make a complaint or raise a concern. Staff of the inquiry agencies described a lack of transparency about how to enter and use the "system" of public sector accountability because no entry point was obvious. This can lead to people trying to use any and/or every agency they can find. The inquiry agencies described this as people "shopping for help".

Another consequence is that referrals to and from inquiry agencies can be inconsistent. They told us about instances where people have been referred from one inquiry agency to another and sometimes back again (by a member of an inquiry agency's staff) without the person's specific concern being addressed. This was described as a danger that people could get lost in a "black hole of bureaucracy".

Sometimes, there may be no obvious source of help for a particular problem. Nevertheless, inquiry agencies expressed concern about how these types of experiences may be affecting people. For example, they told us that they sometimes have to deal with difficult, dangerous, or unreasonable complainants. They said that these people might become "vexatious" because of their experiences, including frustration with the difficulties they have had trying to access help soon enough.

They told us that inquiry agencies had a part to play in highlighting the entry points for people – that inquiry agencies could do more to be discoverable and clear about their roles and powers.

In November 2013, we published the results of our inquiry into the Mangawhai community wastewater scheme.11 We set out three lessons for organisations dealing with concerns from the public. We said that organisations need to:

  • talk to one another and share appropriate information;
  • keep an eye on the big picture (such as signs of bigger problems with a public entity causing people to complain) alongside the detail; and
  • be aware of the dangers of inadequate communication and assuming that people are familiar with the details of the organisations' roles and how they work.12

Effectiveness of inquiry agencies

In paragraph 2.22, we discussed four principles that the Ombudsman identified in 2012 on which complaint processes should be modelled. These are:

  • fairness;
  • accessibility;
  • responsiveness; and
  • efficiency.

From what we have seen, the six agencies achieve some of these principles better than others. For example, with responsiveness, although completing work promptly is challenging for the six agencies , they largely meet their targets for completing work in a timely way (see paragraphs 4.30-4.32).

However, inquiry agencies have difficulties that are likely to reduce the effectiveness of their work. In paragraphs 5.2-5.12, we discussed how people can find it difficult to take a matter to the relevant public entity in the first instance and to know which is the most appropriate inquiry agency to go to if they are not satisfied with the public entity's response.

An aspect that inquiry agencies reported having difficulty with is equitable access to public sector accountability functions. They expressed to us their concern that they might not be reaching the population groups that most need their help. We were told that the people least likely to complain are usually the most vulnerable and marginalised. As well as having complaints or concerns, these people sometimes hold experience and information that inquiry agencies need to deal with a matter effectively. One inquiry agency told us that the challenge for all inquiry agencies is to find ways of helping those people speak up.

We found that individual complaints or concerns might not be fully resolved because each of the inquiry agencies involved addresses only some of the matters raised. For example, we heard how, in some instances, each inquiry agency involved in a matter focused on the part that they were responsible for, rather than the matter as a whole. This can sometimes be because of the nature of the matter raised – there might be no obvious and accessible inquiry agency to go to for help. The six agencies also told us that this sometimes happens because of the legal bounds of the functions and powers that they must work within.

In our 2013 report on the Mangawhai community wastewater scheme, we noted that several agencies have a role in scrutinising the work of local authorities and holding them to account. Each does so within the limits of its role and statutory mandate. We said:

Each agency focused on its own functions and the limits of that role … Viewed as a whole, the body of complaints contains allegations and, in some instances, information that could have indicated that problems with the scheme were wider than the wastewater targeted rate. However, each agency addressed each complaint as it came. At no point did the three agencies pool their information or jointly consider what an appropriate response might be.13

The six agencies also talked to us about the difficulty they can have distinguishing between one instance of a service delivery failure and a systemic problem that needs addressing. This can affect the efficiency of their operations, if they end up dealing with multiple complaints caused by the same systemic problem.

Collaboration between inquiry agencies

All of the inquiry agencies we spoke to supported the notion of collaborating more with other inquiry agencies. They agreed that improved connections between them is likely to improve the quality and timeliness of services for the public and likely to improve the use of public resources.14

We saw some examples of inquiry agencies collaborating formally and informally. For example, after the Canterbury earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, people raised concerns about how the Earthquake Commission was handling information requests under the Official Information Act 1982 and the Privacy Act 1993. The Ombudsman and the Privacy Commissioner did a joint investigation that enabled them to manage the matters that spanned both of their agencies.

The Human Rights Commission told us that it is mindful of not duplicating effort when it makes its decisions about what to work on. For example, it does not work directly on issues where the Office of the Children's Commissioner has a mandate, but supports this work with aligned advocacy activities. This involves both inquiry agencies being clear about what each is working on and looking for opportunities to contribute to each other's work.

In practice, inquiry agencies face challenges in working more closely together that they must consider, including:

  • legislative provisions that sometimes make collaboration difficult;
  • a lack of certainty about what other inquiry agencies are working on; and
  • relying on informal networks when more formal arrangements are needed for managing real or perceived overlaps in their public sector accountability roles and for referring complaints to other inquiry agencies.

The inquiry agencies that we met with felt that regular meetings between them about matters of concern would not be the best use of their time or resources. However, they agreed that they should look to more proactively share information with each other:

  • on a case-by-case basis, where relevant and consistent with legal obligations;
  • about work programmes;
  • to better manage cross-overs between inquiry agencies; and
  • to identify opportunities to put collective energy into being proactive when a common risk or systemic problem is appearing.

In paragraphs 1.19 to 1.22, we discussed how our Office made the information we gathered for this work available so that it can be used as a resource for inquiry agencies, public entities, and the public. Our intention is for this to help people more easily and quickly identify which public sector accountability and/or complaints services they should access. Also, we hope that an improved understanding of their roles will help inquiry agencies to collaborate more effectively.

11: Controller and Auditor-General (2013), Inquiry into the Mangawhai community wastewater scheme.

12: Controller and Auditor-General (2013), Inquiry into the Mangawhai community wastewater scheme, page 286

13: Controller and Auditor-General (2013), Inquiry into the Mangawhai community wastewater scheme, page 256.

14: For more information about collaboration between inquiry agencies in Western Australia, see: Wilkins P, Phillimore J, and Gilchrist D (2015), Collaboration between watchdogs: Learnings from the Western Australian Experience, Curtin University, available at the Curtin University website,