Chief Ombudsman discusses challenge and change

 Dame Beverley Wakem 96X129                 Section 3 of the Ombudsmen Act 1975 is a precious chestnut of public law. Its six subsections, including number 4 which establishes a chief ombudsman, refer only to genitive “his” and accusative “him”, without any prescient contemplation of “hers” or “her”.

The drafters might now regret having been so gender specific, given that our seventh chief ombudsman is Dame Beverley Wakem, DNZM, CBE, who was appointed an ombudsman in 2005 and became chief of the office in April 2008.

If Dame Beverley’s responsibilities are hard to get one’s head around, her career prior to her current role is equally so.

26 years in radio broadcasting, including seven as CEO of Radio New Zealand, were followed by governing and executive roles with the St James Theatre Trust and Rightson, a spell as executive chair of Hill and Knowlton and seven years with the Higher Salaries Commission (now the Remuneration Authority). So which of her past personas informed her current position most?

“I think actually all of them,” she says. “In the first place I was a chief executive of Radio New Zealand so I have been on both sides now of an ombudsman’s process.

“I think in that role, dealing largely with the public and with peoples’ requirements out of a public broadcaster, you get to deal with a lot of interesting local issues and you get to deal with a lot of people who have beefs and complaints. You must deal with them with openness and respect.”

She then considers her role as the chairman of a council controlled organisation, the St James Theatre Trust, “where you are really a steward on behalf of the local community, running a couple of rather lovely theatres, making sure they were full. That gives you some sense of what the community wants, what will play and also accounting for your stewardship to the city council”.

Dame Beverley says of her time with the Higher Salaries Commission: “That gives you another perspective on the worth of high profile public roles that have some sensitivity about them.”

The annual reports and statements of intent produced by the Office of the Ombudsman over Dame Beverley’s time make heavy reading. A marked increase in Ombudsmen Act and Official Information Act complaints is a worrying trend for an office which has long been under-resourced.

“We’ve gone from something like seven and a half thousand complaints a year when I first started, through to nearly 14 thousand complaints this year,” Dame Beverley remarks. “If you take out the earthquake and prisons, the underlying trajectory is still rising.”

Some proactive innovation has been required to manage, if not to stem, the flow of work.

“We’re trying to triage a great many more of the minor complaints early without the necessity to formally notify them with the agency being complained about,” she says. 

“What this means is about 900 of those are being dealt with on this basis in any month. What it leaves you with are the more complex cases.

“Sensitive issues like the float of Mighty River and the sort of competitive commercial information the government had around this – which may on its release have had an impact on the stock exchange and the price and success of the float – these are knotty questions that require a great deal of careful consideration.”

Dame Beverley sees one dominant social driver as underpinning her steadily increasing workload.

“I think because of technology now it’s a lot easier to complain if you know who to complain to,” she says emphatically. “It’s not just white males over forty with a tertiary education who are engaging with us, which was the case when we first surveyed our clientele.

“The bloggers have found us and they’re republishing a lot of our material, particularly opinions we’re putting up on the website which give greater guidance to people who want to complain and ways in which, on certain sets of facts, the ombudsman has gone. [People know that] if your complaint looks like that, then likely this will be the outcome.”

Dame Beverley is pleased to see more younger people using technology to approach her office and sees the future requiring more outreach to young people and those of Maori and Pacifika backgrounds who are under-represented as complainant groups.

Vote Ombudsmen is receiving a boost in 2013-14, and Dame Beverley expects to recruit six new investigators in the coming year. She casually offers an ideal person specification, for any reader who might be interested.

“We will be recruiting shortly, and are looking for people with two to three years’ experience as a minimum, in public law, but if they’ve also got interests in health and education matters, we’re happy to hear from them. They need to be energetic, focused and wanting to make a difference,” she says.

Dame Beverley wants to see new investigators helping with some additional functions which her office has taken on during her term.

These include investigating complaints about the government’s adherence to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and conducting more on-site inspections of places of detention, to fulfill her office’s function as a national prevention mechanism under the Crimes of Torture Act 1989.

Her overall aim is to get her complaints backlog down.

“The case load which individual investigators have been carrying in this office has been inhumane by any international standard.

“We got it down to no more than 35 cases at any one time for each person but actually they should be down to 25 so you can focus and really deal to some of these very complicated matters without having a nervous breakdown.”

And to limit the potential for such mental distress for those working in her office, Dame Beverley offers the following candid admonition on interacting with the ombudsmen.

“Basically we need clarity and simplicity,” she says. “If you’re arguing on behalf of your client there are some basic things we need to have when the letter comes in.

“We don’t want a lot of hyperbole and we don’t want black letter law at 90 paces. We actually want the facts: whether the matter’s urgent and if so why; full details of concerns about the act or decision and why a decision or conduct is considered unfair or unreasonable.

“Lawyers need to understand they’re not addressing a judge. They’re addressing somebody whose basic question is, on a fast day with a following wind, was this a reasonable thing to have done?” 

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