Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Feeding the watchdog

Earlier in the month we were reminded again of the terrible state of the Ombudsman's Office. Underfunding has left them basically unable to perform their basic functions, unable to investigate OIA complaints in a timely manner. But now Parliament seems to be doing something about the problem, with the Officers of Parliament Committee recommending an extra million dollars a year to cover hiring six new investigators [PDF]:

We consider an increase in staffing necessary for the Office of the Ombudsmen to continue to perform its statutory duties satisfactorily. The number of complaints to the Ombudsmen has increased sharply over the past decade, and there has been considerable pressure on the office’s staff to meet heavy caseloads. While temporary funding was provided in 2010/11 and 2011/12 and included in the baseline from 2012/13 in an effort to clear the backlog of cases, new requests for assistance have continued to increase, particularly since the Canterbury earthquakes. In the view of the Chief Ombudsman, the financial constraints under which the office is operating — and the pressures on its staff — are acute, and mean it will increasingly be unable to achieve its performance targets for
resolving complaints.


We acknowledge that the Office of the Ombudsmen provides a valuable and important service to Parliament and the New Zealand public. Balancing the work expected of the office against the current financial climate, we consider it appropriate to increase funding for 2013/14 and out-years to provide for an additional six investigating staff — an increase of 12 percent in the number of investigators.

The bad news? This is less than the Ombudsman asked for, and therefore less than it needs. But Treasury decided they could cope with only four additional investigators (presumably by just working them to death), so the Committee split the difference.

This increase should mean the backlog decreases. But we're probably still a way from having the well-funded, fast, efficient service the public expects and deserves.

Update: Something I hadn't noticed: the Committee explicitly rejects pay increases for ordinary staff. The Ombudsmen themselves are covered by the Remuneration Authority, so automatically get a raise. The people doing the actual legwork, OTOH, are a different story. They apparently haven't had a pay rise in years, to the extent that they've suffered a 15% cut in real terms - more than enough to have an effect on the productivity of the office. This injustice also needs to be corrected. But somehow I think that MPs (who also get automatic pay rises every year and are effectively insulated from such petty concerns as money) will be unsympathetic.