Auditor-General's overview

Public accountability: A matter of trust and confidence.

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā karangarangatanga maha o te motu, tēnā koutou.

Public accountability is a cornerstone of our system of government. Knowledge on what the public is getting for their taxes and rates, how well that is being spent, and the integrity of the overall system are the basics of public accountability. It is also fundamental to the role of my Office.

During the last 30 years, considerable changes in technology, the natural environment, social and cultural diversity, and expectations of the public have created new challenges and opportunities for the public sector. New Zealanders have become increasingly informed and connected.

In this more diverse, dynamic, and connected world, the public is demanding more from our public accountability system. How the public sector tells its story will be fundamental to maintaining the public's trust and confidence.

This discussion paper is the first phase in a programme of work about the future of public accountability. It is not a detailed review of New Zealand's current constitutional arrangements, but explores the role public accountability plays in maintaining trust and confidence in the public sector. This paper does not cover all aspects or perspectives of public sector accountability. However, the weight of evidence presented suggests that new thinking is needed about how the public sector demonstrates its ongoing competence, reliability, and honesty in a way that meets changing public expectations.

There have been significant improvements in public sector accountability, transparency, and openness during the last 30 years. However, it seems that the public still does not feel as adequately informed or assured as it could be. Although the latest Kiwis Count survey shows that New Zealanders have high levels of trust in the public services they use, there is significantly less trust in the public sector, and particularly within Māori and Pasifika communities. One possible reason for this, as one researcher in New Zealand recently suggested, is that a significant amount of public accountability information is currently published that the public neither reads nor understands.

In many respects, the public accountability system is doing what it was designed to do. However, whether this is enough to meet the expectations of the public today and in the future is unclear. The system might be hitting its original targets but increasingly missing the point.

Although public officials and their agencies are primarily accountable to their Ministers and through them to Parliament, they must also act to maintain the trust and confidence of the public they serve. The public might expect a more direct accountability relationship – not just as users of public services but as the ultimate owners of public resources. This will create some challenges and tensions.

In parts of the public sector, a more direct relationship is already forming – for example, with greater public participation in policy development. However, the public sector will need to do much more if it is to increase public trust and confidence throughout New Zealand, particularly with Māori and minority communities.

The current system of public accountability has many strengths, but the public sector cannot be complacent. Performing competently might not be enough, by itself, to maintain public trust and confidence. Behaviours such as truthfulness, respect, and fairness are just as important.

The recently announced reforms to the State sector envisage a unified public service, focused on agencies working together to improve outcomes as stewards of New Zealanders' intergenerational well-being. These reforms are an opportunity to shape a system of public accountability that complements the public management system and meets the needs of New Zealanders today and in the future.

To realise this opportunity, the system of public accountability will need to be thought about from the perspective of those who it is there for. And this starts with understanding what is important to our communities and why.

The next phase of our research on public accountability will build on what we have learned here and focus on how well the current public accountability system is positioned to respond to the challenges and opportunities the public sector faces. This research will inform what my Office does to improve trust and promote value in the public sector.

I acknowledge the assistance of academics from Victoria University of Wellington and the many public servants (past and present) who have taken the time to offer their perspectives and provide feedback on this paper.

Nāku noa, nā John

Signature - JR

John Ryan
Controller and Auditor-General

3 September 2019

Photo acknowledgement: Ginny Dunn