Adam Bennett

Adam is a political reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Budget 2014: Funding crucial as busy watchdogs feel the strain

Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem has been vocal about the strain her organisation has been under. Photo / NZ Herald
Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem has been vocal about the strain her organisation has been under. Photo / NZ Herald

The Canterbury earthquakes, a string of state sector privacy breaches and the Novopay debacle have increased the pressure on New Zealand's three primary public watchdogs.

But while the Privacy Commissioner and Auditor-General may have to wait, the Ombudsman will get an increase in funding in today's Budget.

Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem has been the most vocal about the strain her organisation has been under, saying two years ago that it was in "crisis" with underpaid staff leaving and in some cases literally being worked to death.

The office received a small increase in funding in the last Budget which helped it keep up with a record number of complaints about state sector agencies, including a near doubling in Official Information Act and Earthquake Commission complaints.

"However, the large increase in work has affected the timeliness of our interventions," Dame Beverley said in her annual report.

Auditor-General Lyn Provost also said last year had been "challenging" for her organisation's inquiry work.

A number of large inquiries contributed to "a high workload".

The office also fell short of targets for completing its audits of public entities, largely due to the Novopay disaster affecting school audits, something Ms Provost said was "disappointing".

Meanwhile, in her final report last year former Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff warned her organisation was struggling.

"Pressure is continuing to affect our capacity to respond to rising external demands. Data breaches, government and business demands, media inquiries, new agreements for information sharing and the generally turbulent environment are placing a small agency like the Office of the Privacy Commissioner under continual strain."

The Ombudsman and Auditor-General make their case for more funding to the officers of Parliament committee and if it is persuaded the Government usually implements it. The committee released its recommendations the for funding of organisations in March.

The Office of the Ombudsman's baseline budget goes from $9.9 million to $10.3 million in 2014-15, rising to $10.46 million thereafter.

With last year's increase the office's budget will have expanded in two years to a figure approaching that sought by Dame Beverley two years ago.

She welcomed that yesterday. Last year's increase had enabled her to hire more investigators and the office was on track to largely get through its backlog of complaints by some time time next year.

The Office of the Auditor-General did not seek any additional funding this year other than for remuneration of its senior staff but it did seek and gain approval for a 2.5 per cent increase in what it charges public sector organisations for its audit services from which it gets most of its revenue.

However, the committee noted that the Office of the Auditor-General would need to "consider the adequacy" of the slightly more than $9 million a year it receives from the Crown for work on public inquiries.


Hard-working bodies

Ombudsman

• Received 13,684 complaints last year, 29% increase.
• Cleared 13,358 complaints, 30% increase.

Privacy Commissioner

• Received 824 complaints, 28% decrease on year before when complaints hit record levels after data breaches including ACC.
• Closed 896 complaints, 12.6% decrease.

Auditor-General

• 48% of audits completed on time, down from 88% in previous year.
• 3,235 entities audited, up 42.

- NZ Herald

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