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Working together: Re-focussing public accountability to achieve better lives

This report for the New Zealand Productivity Commission was prepared at NZIER by Peter Wilson and Julie Fry.

In reviewing the economics of accountability, the report looks at how the system of public accountability in Aotearoa New Zealand can contribute to increasing the productivity and effectiveness of the social assistance system, with a focus on addressing persistent disadvantage.

NZIER finds that the term ‘accountability’ has many meanings and must be defined within the context within which it is being used. But accountability is always about a relationship between someone exercising power and those on whose behalf they are exercising that power.

There are three main dimensions to accountability. The ‘democratic’ dimension puts into effect a ‘democratic chain of delegation’ from voters to parliament, Ministers, and then officials and those who deliver assistance and provide services. ‘Constitutional’ accountability promotes transparency, honesty, and ethical behaviour. A ‘learning’ dimension supports ongoing improvement at all levels.

Accountability in Aotearoa New Zealand relies heavily on constitutional elements. As a consequence, there are simultaneously claims of an ‘accountability deficit’ on the democratic and learning dimensions and an ‘accountability overload’ on the constitutional accountability front.

NZIER recommends a strengthened, more balanced approach that emphasises accountability methods that focus on learning and using the power of democratic accountability to achieve better results. Determining whether assistance is working requires listening to the people it is designed to help, learning from their experiences, and making adjustments as needed.

The assistance that works will address both the specific causes of disadvantage faced by each person and whānau and more general, systemic issues. It will focus on prevention, provide crisis support, and build the capacity and capability of both staff and providers over time.

A summary of the recommendations in the report is as follows:

  • The Crown should honour its obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
  • The Government should acknowledge, examine and address underlying systemic issues that contribute to persistent disadvantage.
  • Make the social assistance system accountable to people experiencing persistent disadvantage.
  • Introduce a strengthened democratic accountability regime.
  • Appoint a single Minister with cross-portfolio responsibility for addressing persistent disadvantage.
  • Establish a lead specialist department that does not have other social assistance delivery to support the Minister.
  • Create a new role of lead community worker to work with whānau experiencing persistent disadvantage.
  • Streamline constitutional accountability, scaling back the current system of reporting inputs and outputs.
  • Embed effective systems thinking at all levels so this becomes a bedrock feature of all organisations addressing persistent disadvantage.

This report provides input to inform our thinking for our inquiry into A Fair Chance for All: Breaking the cycle of persistent disadvantage.

The content and recommendations presented in the report are the views of the author. They are not an indication that the Commission agrees with or endorses these views.


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