What is an inquiry?

The Auditor-General has the power to inquire into public entities’ use of public resources. What exactly does that mean? In the first of a series of blogs about our inquiry work, Inquiries Manager David Lemmon explains…

Westland inquiry report coverAs an Officer of Parliament, the Auditor-General has a number of functions and powers available to him to carry out his work to ensure that public organisations are using public resources appropriately. Every year, the Office is expected, and required, to carry out certain work – that is, our annual audits of government departments, local authorities, schools and other public organisations. This is our bread and butter work, so to speak. Then there’s our discretionary work – performance audits, inquiries, and other work, such as research projects and initiatives to share and promote good practice.

That discretionary work allows us to take a closer and more comprehensive look at topics and issues in the public sector to understand how organisations are performing and have acted.

Our inquiries

Our inquiries are an opportunity to investigate a particular issue or situation and ask all those questions starting with “W”: what happened, why and when did it happen, who was involved and so on. It has been said that our inquiries function is our “descriptor-general” function, where we can tell a factual and independent story about what has happened and what lessons can be. In this way, the inquiries work is a little different from other audit or assurance work that measures how an organisation is going against an expectation or standard. We have the opportunity to look more deeply at a concern and report what has gone on.     

Our Office receives many requests to inquire into issues or matters of concern. However, no one can compel the Auditor-General to carry out an inquiry. The Auditor-General decides whether or not to carry out an inquiry.

We carry out our inquiry work under the Public Audit Act 2001, which allows our Office to inquire “into any matter concerning a public entity’s use of public resources”. That’s a pretty broad direction, so we have to consider carefully if a potential issue falls within that description before we carry out a full inquiry. Sometimes the answer is clear; sometimes it can be difficult and take a little bit of time. Sometimes the issue might result in a full inquiry with terms of references and a public report, or a more focused piece of work, such as a letter to the person who raised the issue or the organisation involved.

What can we look at?

We look at a wide variety of issues – such as how a procurement has been carried out, decisions about how public resources have been used, or how a conflict of interest has been managed. However, there are some limits to our role and some things that we’re not able to look at, such as matters of government or local authority policy.

One point that comes up regularly is whether we are best placed to look at an issue or there is another suitable agency to consider a request made to us. For example, questions about accessing information held by a public organisation may be better considered by the Ombudsman. Issues about behaviour by government officials might be a question more suitable for the State Services Commission. It might also be that the organisation itself is best placed to consider the concerns in the first instance. If that process does not address the concern, we might then look at it. 

In some situations, a party to an agreement or process might approach us to become involved where the party feels disadvantaged. In those situations, if there is a disputes resolution process available, we are likely to encourage them to use that. Another situation that frequently comes up is where someone wants us to intervene to stop a decision that has been made by a public organisation. Our powers do not extend to doing that.

If anyone would like us to inquire into an issue and wants to make a request for that to happen, it is often helpful for us to understand if any of those other avenues have been taken or are underway. This will help us decide if it is appropriate for us to do any work.

There are several ways an issue might come to our attention and we would consider whether or not to inquire into it. We can receive information from the public, from MPs or Ministers, select committees, or information from other agencies.

Another way an issue might come to our attention is through a protected disclosure. Protected disclosures can be made to us when an employee or previous employee of a public organisation is concerned about potential wrongdoing. We may also come across an issue as part of our audit work and decide that it needs looking at more closely. Our inquiry into Waikato District Health Board’s procurement of its HealthTap app is an example of this.

Even though inquiries often focus on one particular issue or decision, their findings and broader lessons can be useful for public organisations to ensure that similar issues and events don’t reoccur.

I’ll be blogging about other aspects of our inquiries work so keep an eye on this blog and our social media channels. If there’s anything you’d like me to cover, please leave a comment below. In the meantime, have a look at some of the work we’ve recently published as a result of our inquiry work:

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