Anyone affected by a government decision or other action may complain to the ombudsmen. The traditional role of the ombudsmen is to investigate ‘maladministration’ – a broad term that encompasses biased, neglectful, incompetent and unfair administration by government and other public organisations.
When Sir Guy Powles was first appointed ombudsman in 1962, he had jurisdiction over central government departments. In 1967 this was extended to education and hospital boards, and in 1975 to statutory boards and local government. When state-owned enterprises and Crown entities were created in the 1980s they also came under the jurisdiction of the ombudsman.
Since the establishment of the office, numbers of complaints have fluctuated from year to year, but overall have increased. The growing complexity of cases has also added to the ombudsman’s workload. Most complaints made under the Ombudsmen Act (OA) are made by individual members of the public, but complaints are also received from the media, corporate bodies, government agencies and Members of Parliament. Details about the number and type of complaints are made available in the annual reports of the Office of the Ombudsman.
Law and justice
The ombudsman is allowed to challenge decisions that are legal but wrong by other standards. One example was the case of a naval officer’s widow who was refused compensation by the navy after her husband was killed by explosives in an exercise in 1955. She asserted that he was untrained to handle explosives. The ombudsman’s investigation showed that the death had resulted from the bad administrative practice of making unqualified people do dangerous work. It also showed that the navy had been rigid and inconsiderate in its attitude towards the complainant. She was awarded compensation and costs.
The ombudsman is intended to be an office of last resort. Complainants are expected to try to resolve their dispute with the agency concerned before complaining to the ombudsmen. They must also follow any prescribed method of appealing against a decision or having it reviewed by a court or another body.
The ombudsman makes inquiries and then forms an opinion on whether the agency acted fairly and reasonably in its dealings with the complainant. If the ombudsman thinks it appropriate, he or she can recommend remedial action. Although the ombudsman cannot compel agencies to put matters right, it is expected that they will follow ombudsmen’s recommendations.
While the ombudsmen usually act after receiving complaints about government decisions or actions, they also have power to make investigations into government on their own initiative. They can then report their conclusions to Parliament.
Looking back over years of investigations into complaints, on his retirement Sir Guy Powles said: ‘I have as yet found in the New Zealand Public Service no evidence of corruption or moral obliquity – mistakes, carelessness, delay, rigidity, and perhaps heartlessness, but nothing really sinful.’1 The investigations carried out by the ombudsmen help to assure the public that there is no state corruption in New Zealand.