From 1 August 2016 I take up a temporary role as an Ombudsman. The customary practice in New Zealand has been for Ombudsmen to be external appointments. My background as an 'insider' since 1985 and a Deputy Ombudsman for the past 12 years gives me a different perspective than if I were an Ombudsman who is new to the Office and the process of change that we have been going through in recent times. New Zealand society, the way the state sector operates and indeed the way we are governed have changed markedly since I joined the Office 30 years ago. For the Ombudsmen, the Darwinian theory of the need to be able to adapt to change has always been an imperative.
The key outcome that the Ombudsman seeks to achieve is the promotion of fair, just and transparent delivery of services and better public administration in the state sector. In order to achieve this outcome, the Ombudsmen have to regularly rethink their strategy and review their Office structure and capability to achieve the ongoing operational improvement necessary to remain both relevant and effective. As noted in this OQR, the Chief Ombudsman has recently published his Strategic Intentions for 2016-20. This builds on and strengthens the changes we have already made over the last few years but also cements in clear targets to eliminate our backlog of aged complaints and improve the timeliness of our work over the next 3 years. To support this strategy, we have been making the necessary changes to structure and deployment of resource to sharpen our focus and execution in achieving the strategic outcomes Parliament expects of the Office of the Ombudsman.
My perspective as an 'insider' Ombudsman is that the changes that our Office has been making and will continue to make to support the Chief Ombudsman’s strategic intentions are part of the natural order of seeking to achieve our purpose better. I am excited to have the opportunity to contribute more directly in the implementation of this new strategy. I am confident that we have the capability, energy and will to overcome the challenges we have been facing and to ensure that the standards of fairness, justice and transparency that New Zealanders expect and deserve of the state sector are maintained. In practice, that will translate into both a greater focus on early resolution and quicker decision making where principles are well settled and the facts are not in dispute.
In June 2016 Chief Ombudsman Judge Peter Boshier published his Strategic Intentions for 2016-2020. Our new Office targets include, within the next 3 years, to eliminate our backlog of aged complaints and to deal with the majority of new complaints (70%) within three months, and all complaints within 12 months. We will also be continuing our programme of systemic interventions, including delivering advice, guidance and training to agencies, reviewing and monitoring the compliance and good practice of agencies in the official information area, and undertaking significant and systemic investigations of issues arising in the Ombudsmen Act area. Overall, Judge Boshier wants our Office to be an organisation of excellence.
A link to the Strategic Intentions document can be found here.
On 13 July 2016 the Chief Ombudsman delivered a speech to public sector leaders at the Transparency International Leaders Integrity Forum. Judge Boshier’s speech covered the Ombudsman’s role in monitoring integrity systems. He discussed the Official Information Act—its purposes and principles, and what is and isn’t working well, both in terms of how the Act is applied, and how official information decisions are reviewed by the Ombudsman. He also explained the future direction of the Ombudsman, and what this means for public sector leaders.
You can read the speech here.
In June 2016 we published a new guide on charging for official information. It uses real life case studies to explain when it is reasonable to charge and how to charge. It includes a step-by-step worksheet, a template charging letter and a sample estimate of costs.
New guidance will be published on an ongoing basis throughout the year. To keep up to date with the new guidance, like us on Facebook (Ombudsman NZ).
COTA 10th anniversary and radio interview
New Zealand is a signatory to the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment (OPCAT). The objective of OPCAT is to establish a system of regular visits by both international and national bodies to places of detention in order to prevent any form of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
The Ombudsman is one of New Zealand’s ‘National Preventative Mechanisms’ and Jacki Jones, our Chief Inspector, and her team of three Inspectors are responsible for examining and monitoring the treatment of people detained in prisons, premises approved under the Immigration Act, and health and disability places of detention.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the entry into force of the OPCAT and in a radio show ‘Kōrerotia’ sponsored by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, Jacki discussed her role as Chief Inspector and key issues relating to human rights and monitoring places of detention.
A link to the radio interview can be found here.
Ministers’ surface travel expenses not subject to obligation of confidence
The Chief Ombudsman formed the opinion that this information is clearly ‘official information’ within the meaning of the Official Information Act, regardless of whether the purpose of the travel in question was official or private. The Chief Ombudsman did not consider that such information was subject to an obligation of confidence and, further, noted that the public interest in release of the information was strong, sufficient to outweigh any need for withholding.
A link to the case note can be found here.
In June 2016 Chief Ombudsman Judge Peter Boshier published a case note about a complaint against the Ministry of Justice (Legal Services Commissioner) who refused a journalist’s request for information about contributions made by Mr David Bain towards his legal aid. The Chief Ombudsman accepted that the information would, if released, infringe Mr Bain’s privacy. He also considered that the information had been provided by Mr Bain to the Legal Services Commissioner on the understanding that it would be treated as confidential and, as such, was subject to an obligation of confidence. The Chief Ombudsman further acknowledged that, generally speaking, recipients of legal aid could expect this type of information to be withheld on either or both of these grounds as, for the most part, the public interest in its release would not outweigh those interests. However, the Chief Ombudsman noted that Mr Bain’s case was not a usual one. The sums of money paid out were significant—the highest in New Zealand’s legal history for one person. In addition, due to the extended media and public interest in the trials and appeals, a considerable amount of information about Mr Bain’s financial situation was already in the public domain. The Chief Ombudsman formed the opinion that, in this case, the public interest in transparency of the decisions of the Legal Services Commissioner in assessing and granting legal aid, as well as accountability in respect of collection of any contributions, required release of some of the information sought.
A link to the case note can be found here.
In June 2016 former Ombudsman Ron Paterson published a case note about a complaint against the Police. The Police refused a request by a journalist for information linking the last bar a person had been drinking at before being arrested, otherwise known as the ‘Alco-link survey’. The Police considered that, if released, the information would unreasonably prejudice the commercial position of the bars named. The Ombudsman accepted that this provision did apply but found that the public interest in release of the information was significant, and outweighed any protected interest. In reaching this decision, the Ombudsman had regard to the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 which specifically intended an increase in community participation with respect to supply and control of alcohol. The Ombudsman considered that disclosure of evidence such as the Alco-link survey enabled such informed participation and that this was clearly in the public interest.
A link to the case note can be found here.
In June 2016 former Ombudsman Ron Paterson published his opinion on an investigation into a complaint by Derek Leask, a former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, about the State Services Commission’s inquiry into leaked MFAT documents, undertaken by Paula Rebstock. The Ombudsman found that the Commission acted unreasonably in the conduct of the inquiry and in the findings it made about Mr Leask, who was not responsible for the leaks.
The Ombudsman recommended that the Commission offer a public apology to Mr Leask, reimburse him for actual and reasonable expenses, compensate him for harm to reputation and review its guidance for future inquiries under the State Services Act 1988, in light of this report.
A link to the opinion can be found here.