Don Brash tells a good story of taking over as CEO of the merchant bank Broadbank in the early 1970s and being told by the Post Office it would take several months to get some new phone system installed in the dealing room. It wasn’t just merchant banks. Te Ara, the on-line encyclopaedia records that
business customers in particular wanted more sophisticated telephone services which were available internationally, and households were often frustrated by the time it took to get a telephone.
Delays in the installation of new telephones affected more than residential customers. In 1984 Treasury, at the forefront of the push for re-organisation of the Post Office, waited two months for existing telephone jacks to be shifted. Senior officials exchanged angry letters. Treasury argued that it was inefficiency, and the Post Office insisted it was pressure of work.
It is easy enough to get a telephone today. It is a shame one can’t say the same about official information – that reforming legislation having come a few years earlier than the telecoms ones.
As I noted the other day, last year I asked the Reserve Bank for any papers relating to work it had undertaken on reforming the Bank’s governance model (single decision-maker, role of the Board etc). That request was lodged on 29 June. On 24 August – almost two months later, notwithstanding the “as soon as reasonably practicable” provision in the Act, the Bank declined my request almost in full (releasing one paper not that relevant to the issue). They cited numerous reasons including the rather grandiose claim that to release such papers would damage “the substantial economic interests of New Zealand” . I documented all of that here.
A few days later (27 August) I complained to the Ombudsman’s office. They acknowledged receipt of the complaint and noted, as is typical, that it would probably take some time to get to it.
This afternoon, 17 February, a nice letter from the Ombudsman’s office was dropped into our letter box, informing me that they are just now getting underway with an investigation and that the Chief Ombudsman, Peter Boshier, will be investigating my complaint. That is welcome.
It is a genuinely nice letter, quite apologetic about the “workload pressures” that “have led to delays in progressing this matter”. I am not intending here to be critical of the Ombudsman’s office at all – Parliament determines their resources, and they must do their best within those constraints.
But it is now almost eight months since the first request was lodged. I presume it will take another month or two for the matter to be resolved. Perhaps 10 months on from the initial request I might finally get an answer.
I think the specific issue is an important one, of some public interest, but it clearly isn’t that time-critical. For plenty of other matters, time matters more. But if this is a typical lag – as I can only assume it is – no wonder plenty of government agencies find it worthwhile to stall, and wait out the Ombudsman.
Telephone delays etc were quickly resolved once the industry was deregulated. The same solution doesn’t look to be available here. Perhaps not many problems can be solved simply by throwing more money at them – and there may be scope for productivity improvements in the Office of the Ombudsman – but an effective well-functioning Ombudsman’s office, with prompt turnaround times, does have the feel of a currently underfunded public good.