Red Alert

Ombudsmen (Cost Recovery) Bill

Posted by on July 26th, 2012

One of the Bill’s that was drawn from the ballot today is unlikely to gain as much attention as others, but it could have quite a significant impact on the way government operates. The Ombudsmen (Cost Recovery) Amendment Bill, in the name of Shane Jones, allows the Ombudsmen to set guidelines for recovering the costs of their investigations from the agencies being investigated.

Sound pretty uninteresting? Consider this: the Ombudsmen are the people who investigate alleged breaches of the Official Information Act (among other important roles). If the government is trying to hide something, they are the ones who can force it into the open. They play a vital ‘safeguard’ role within our governing system. But currently they can’t keep up with demand.

During the 2011 financial review of the Office of the Ombudsmen, the Chief Ombudsman stated that the office was ‘in crisis’ due to its high caseload and inability to meet demand. Only a minor increase has been recommended as part of this year’s Budget. This extra funding will cover increases in salary costs but will do nothing to address the more than 300 cases that are presently unallocated and awaiting further consideration.

This Bill allows the Ombudsmen to set guidelines for recovering the costs of their investigations from the agencies being investigated. This will ensure that resourcing constraints do not deny access to due process, and will promote greater compliance with legislative requirements by government departments and agencies.

Providing the Ombudsmen with the ability to charge those departments or agencies who are the subject of Official Information Act 1982 investigations is likely to improve compliance with that legislation (which currently contains very weak compliance provisions).

So, not the sort of stuff that’s going to set the political world alight with excitement, but a very important debate to have all the same.

9 Responses to “Ombudsmen (Cost Recovery) Bill”

  1. Richard Stephens says:

    I think this bill is very important and is good to see. I have not had a look at the Bill in full but would like to see similar abilities given to other bodies like the Health and Disability Commission etc. I dropped a case against a DHB due to the time it was taking to just get heard. It was better for my health and wellbeing at the time just to move on. The hearing of the case was delayed due to the high volume of cases and limited budget to hear them.

  2. OneTrack says:

    I think I need more explanation. If the Ombudsmen are investigating and find nothing wrong, do they still charge the subject of their investigation. Alternatively, if they only get paid when they find something wrong, wont that just encourage them to keeep digging and/or make stuff up.

    It seems contrary to any idea of natural justice?

  3. MikeM says:

    Where and when can I find a copy of this Bill? There doesn’t seem to be anything available through the NZ Legislation website at this time, but I was wondering about something similar a few months ago (I/S on NoRightTurn seemed to agree), and I’m now very keen to see exactly what Shane Jones has in mind.

  4. Mac1 says:

    Charge the cost against the salaries and/or performance bonuses of the CEO when the practice of the agency is found to be at fault. I bet that would sharpen things up.

  5. Idiot/Savant says:

    MikeM: The bill is on the Parliamentary website here.

  6. MikeM says:

    Thanks I/S.

  7. MikeM says:

    Thanks for pushing for this, Shane and Labour.

    The reason I really like the concept is that it provides for funding of complaint processes to be directly associated with the agencies that do things likely to result in complaints, even when those complaints are unlikely to be upheld (because there’s still a cost which has to be paid by someone). So when an agency considers the costs of an action, allocates a budget and requests funds, it’ll likewise have to consider the costs of likely complaints that might be generated instead of just ignoring them as the future problem of someone else, even though that someone else is still part of the government.

    If such a framework had been in place from several years ago, you could bet that the Ombudsmen wouldn’t be struggling for finances to handle all the complaints. It would also have provided an incentive for agencies to get things correct the first time around.

  8. JMK says:

    Good in principle. I think the ombudsman’s office should still bear a share of the cost, say 25%, to ensure they don’t go nuts and start investigating everything safe in the knowledge that the departments being investigated will pay.

    There should also be some right for the departments to challenge the costs if they are unreasonable.

  9. MikeM says:

    JMK, the Bill (as written) only allows for cost recovery when investigating complaints, and it specifically disallows charging for investigations that were initiated by the PM, the House of Representatives, or the Ombudsman themselves. The idea being (I think) that agencies which do stuff that’s likely to attract ombudsman complaints will need to budget for handling of the complaints according to the guidelines which the Ombudsman defines… or do it in a way less likely to attract complaints from the beginning.

    Is that what you had in mind?