Ombudsman: NZers waiting too long for answers

Ombudsman: NZers waiting too long for answers

The Chief Ombudsman has told Newshub delays at his office are "embarrassing" but he "owns" the problem and has a plan to turn it around.

Figures show New Zealanders are waiting up to five years to have their complaints about government agencies and requests for information investigated, Newshub included.

Two-and-a-half years ago an Official Information Act request was made to police about the Roast Busters investigation. The police refused to answer a raft of questions, so Newshub went to the Ombudsman and is still waiting.

It's one of 650 cases that are more than a year old, and staff turnover at the office of the Ombudsman is part of the problem. It's up 10 percent in 2014 to 21 percent last year. Newshub's request has been through up to four case managers.

Six months into the job, the new Chief Ombudsman says he hopes the Budget will bring some relief.

If you feel public agencies like the police, councils, ACC or Corrections have wronged you, the Ombudsman's office is often the last port of call. But their chief concedes New Zealanders are waiting too long to get the answers they need.

"I think that's embarrassing but I own it, and it's something I'm very keen to change," says Judge Peter Boshier.

Judge Boshier has revealed at least one person has been waiting five-and-a-half years for his office to investigate a complaint about the Minister of Health. He says $2.6 million signaled in Thursday's Budget should offer hope to those waiting, but it'll be a year before the backlog is fully cleared.

"I expect to set up a backlog team in the next month or two and destroy that backlog."

Complaints from prisoners are bogging the office down. Corrections has told Newshub work is now underway on a new system to handle the majority of prisoner complaints in-house and free up the Ombudsman.

Staff turnover is also an issue, but the Ombudsman says upping his staff's pay after Budget day should lift morale.

"We have an optimistic future where we're going to try and resolve 70 percent of complaints within three months. You can't do that unless you empower the staff and act decisively. They won't be able to do that unless they feel supported."

New Zealand Police top the Ombudsman's list as the organisation most likely to have a complaint against them upheld, while Corrections, the Ministry of Social Development, Auckland Council and the Earthquake Commission also feature.

New Zealand Police say they alone field 10,000 Official Information Act requests every year. While only 1 percent of those people ask the Ombudsman to step in, his office is still swamped.

Newshub's complaint about the police's handling of the Roast Busters case is one of hundreds still outstanding.

But the Ombudsman says there are plans afoot for a team to work directly with public agencies like police to increase transparency and reduce complaints in the first place.