SHENAGH GLEISNER talks to the Auditor-General, John Ryan, about public accountability and trust and confidence.
The Auditor-General’s website often contains challenging ideas. In late 2019, they wrote about public accountability with a focus on the trust and confidence of New Zealanders in the public service. They also drew attention to the focus on stewardship in the public service legislation and considered how public accountability could change accordingly. Their strategic directions document tell us of their intention to find out how well the public service delivers outcomes for New Zealanders. Later this year, they will publish their second report in their public accountability series, along with one on performance reporting. These are matters of great interest to IPANZ. So we thought it was time to find out more from the Auditor-General.
You have said the accountability system must adapt to changes in public expectations. What are these changes?
Public accountability is about being accountable for what the public decides is important – and what the public expects of the public service is changing fast.
Our work suggests that improved performance is important, but it’s not enough any more. The public increasingly expect the public service to include them, understand them, to listen – and respond – to their needs, to act as one public service, and to demonstrate high standards of integrity.
Do you feel our accountability system is adequately focused on the public service’s legitimacy to New Zealanders?
Legitimacy to, and buy-in from, New Zealanders is what gives the public service licence to operate. I cannot stress enough how important this is.
Our system has many strengths. The public service has highly capable people, strong institutions, and good checks and balances. But it must be better at connecting with all New Zealanders. While overall trust in the public service is strong, the Kiwis Count Survey still shows larger gaps in trust from Māori, Pasifika, and people with disabilities.
Engaging with the public should be a fundamental part of what the public service does. The public is looking for integrity and fairness in their dealings with the public service. They need to feel their views are really heard and taken into account and that the public service is ultimately working for them.
What are the factors that build trust and confidence in the public service in the eyes of New Zealanders?
Onora O’Neill summed this up nicely in a TED talk I watched. Think about what you need before you trust someone: you want to know they are competent, that you can rely on them, and that they are being honest with you.
Competence, reliability, and honesty. This is the basis of a good relationship. It’s the same between the public and the public service. Doubts about honesty and integrity in particular very quickly erode trust and confidence.
You say that how the public sector tells its performance story is fundamental to maintaining trust and confidence. Do we need to do better?
In my view, much of the information that’s reported is not that meaningful to the public. Whether it gives parliament or ministers what they need is an open question, too. What is clear is that it rarely answers the questions New Zealanders really care about – is my neighbourhood safe, is my house vulnerable to flooding, and so on. It is too often entity and service focused, rather than focused on outcomes relevant to people.
The public service has worked hard to be more open and transparent, but this has little value if the reported information is irrelevant, untimely, or unclear.
Do you think trust in the public service has increased over the COVID crisis?
Our Covid-19 response has shown that achieving successful outcomes not only involves an organised and responsive public service but also the action, buy-in, and trust of communities across New Zealand. It has also shown that when times get tough, citizens fundamentally trust the government – but that trust can be easily lost, so the public service can’t be complacent.
The longer-term success of this approach depends on maintaining that partnership between government and the public. This means finding different ways of connecting, informing, and reassuring people. The COVID-19 response has thrust key public servants into the spotlight and put a human face on the bureaucracy.
Let’s talk about stewardship. You say there would be five measures of agency performance relating to good stewardship: long-term thinking, prevention, integration, collaboration, and involvement. How can you audit these?
I should say that these are not my ideas – they reflect the “five ways of working” from the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. But I do think they are useful.
They are not what we traditionally think of as indicators of performance. They are not about producing things or delivering services but are about better ways of working.
These are also not things auditors typically focus on – so we will need to find “better ways of working” too.
Whatever measures New Zealand adopts, auditors will need to focus more on the “how” than the “what”. For example, how do agencies apply these new ways of working? How do they manage risks? How do they engage with citizens and other public agencies? And, how do they improve their behaviours over time?
The Welsh Auditor-General audits how agencies comply with the “five ways of working”, which shows that auditing can adapt as the public service evolves.
Perhaps we could focus on prevention. How would you know that an agency was adequately focused on prevention or early intervention?
Preventing problems requires tackling the underlying factors that cause, or contribute, to a problem and working with others to design and implement ways to address them.
We would expect to see clear evidence of long-term thinking. This means agencies invest in developing a good understanding of the problems they face, who is impacted, and the nature and scale of the impact. We would expect agencies to understand what has been tried before and why it worked or didn’t worked.
We would expect to see evidence of system-wide thinking. This means agencies understanding the problem in a system context – understanding the causes and contributing factors in the context of the different roles and responsibilities of those who support or participate in the system.
We would also expect that interventions are underpinned by strong evidence, well-thought-out plans, robust risk-management strategies, and monitoring and evaluation arrangements that reflect a realistic timeframe to achieve the benefits.
Your strategy puts emphasis on evidence that the public service is achieving outcomes for New Zealanders. How are you going to assess this?
Our focus on outcomes is about understanding the degree to which public agencies are bringing about positive change in New Zealanders’ lives.
We have chosen topics that focus on factors that affect the wellbeing of a wide range of New Zealanders.
This will often involve assessing how multiple agencies work towards a common outcome. Our work seeks to understand the outcomes agencies are working to deliver, how those were decided on, who needs to be involved, how they work together, and who is meant to benefit.
We will look at the challenges agencies face and – of course – the results being delivered. We will examine the measures and indicators used to track progress and see how well these relate to the problem being tackled and the needs of those New Zealanders affected.
Outcomes, by nature, are achieved over the long term. The challenges public agencies face are considerable. None of this is easy – for the public service or for us.
You are emphasising domestic and family violence – can you tell me more about how you’re going about this?
We have started a multi-year work programme to better understand the systems in place for addressing family and sexual violence and to guide our future work in this area.
Family violence and sexual violence are complex, multi-generational problems. Successive governments have invested a lot, but this has yet to result in significant and sustained reductions in violence.
The joint venture for family and sexual violence is a new way for multiple agencies to work together to tackle a common challenge. We plan to find out if this has been set up well to deliver on its objectives.
You quote Michael Power in Policy Quarterly who talks of making audit processes “less remote and disciplinary”. Do you agree?
Power was talking about this in 1994, but his thinking is still relevant today. He not only believed that audits need to change to make them less “remote and disciplinary” but also to make them more useful and engaging.
Public sector auditors work with agencies to ensure their findings are understood and recommendations are acted on. They also have relationships with audit and risk committees. The way we’re approaching our work on family violence is another example of a more ongoing relationship.
Much of our work, necessarily, looks at what public agencies have done. Recently we have been doing more real-time auditing – sharing insights and recommending improvements as agencies do their work, rather than pointing out later where things went wrong.
We did this with the firearms buy-back scheme and the Provincial Growth Fund. We’ll also do the same with the joint venture for family violence.
We are still very careful to protect my office’s most important asset – our independence. I liken this to being the referee on the field: independent but still in the game helping people work within the rules, rather than the television match official who sits in judgment from a distance.
I’ve been saying the public service needs to directly engage with the public to understand their needs, and that applies to my office equally. We’re looking at how we engage better so we are less remote, more relevant, and more useful to the public too.
We have been talking about public-sector performance. This is an important part of the audit role. Is there a risk that this discussion could overshadow the fundamentals of the financial audit – ensuring there are strong financial controls and processes to ensure public money is managed well?
Our public service is recognised worldwide as having strong financial disciplines and my office will continue to provide assurance over whether that is the case.
But that matters little if outcomes are not being delivered for the money invested – if they are not ones that matter to New Zealanders or if performance is not reported in a relevant, timely, and clear way. We need to focus on performance in all its dimensions to maintain the trust and confidence of parliament and the public.
To bring this full circle, the starting point for effective public accountability has to be understanding those you are accountable to and what matters to them.