4. Values and trust in New Zealand

Open government refers to a culture of governance that promotes the principles of transparency, integrity, accountability and stakeholder participation in support of democracy and inclusive growth (OECD, 2017[1]). Cross-nationally, promoting and investing in transparency and openness initiatives is found to be associated with higher levels of public trust (OECD, 2022[2]; Bouckaert, 2012[3]; Beshi and Kaur, 2020[4]). Yet, the relationship between openness and trust is complex: cultural values play a significant role in how people perceive and evaluate openness policies and their impact (Grimmelikhuijsen et al., 2013[5]). Most importantly, the effect of openness on public trust is mediated by additional elements, making openness a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for positively influencing trust. For instance, greater transparency will not necessarily lead to increased trust if it exposes controversial information or corruption cases (OECD, 2017[6]; Bauhr and Grimes, 2014[7]). Furthermore, evidence shows that information on and perceptions of government performance may affect the impact of openness initiatives (Alessandro et al., 2021[8]), and that people need to feel trusted by the government in order to trust it, believing that an invitation to participate is genuine and that they are empowered to influence political systems (Schmidthuber, Ingrams and Hilgers, 2020[9]).

Building on the OECD Recommendation of the Council on Open Government (OECD, 2017[1]), the OECD Framework on the Drivers of Trust in Public Institutions measures three key aspects of openness. First, it addresses government’s mandate to inform, including letting people know and understand what the government does and improving transparency.1 Second, it assesses consultation, which entails a two-way relationship in which stakeholders provide feedback to the government and vice-versa. Third, it looks at the government’s capacity to engage citizens and other stakeholders, to include their perspectives and insights and promote co-operation in policy design and implementation. The OECD Trust Survey includes the following three questions gauging these elements in New Zealand:

  • If you need information about an administrative procedure (for example obtaining a passport, applying for a benefit, etc.), how unlikely or likely do you think it is that the information would be easily available?

  • If a decision affecting your community is to be made by the local government, how unlikely or likely do you think it is that you would have an opportunity to voice your views?

  • If you participate in a public consultation on reforming a major policy area (e.g. taxation, healthcare, environmental protection), how unlikely or likely do you think it is that the government would adopt the opinions expressed in the public consultation? 

Results from the 2021 OECD Trust Survey show that New Zealanders’ perceptions of openness are quite positive on transparency of information, but less encouraging on how they see their voice in public decision making (Figure 4.1). Around 8 in 10 (77%) respondents believe that information about administrative procedures is easily accessible (12 percentage points above the average across OECD countries). However, slightly less than half New Zealanders perceive they have enough opportunities to voice their views (48%) and a minority believe that institutions would listen to these views (37%). Although these levels appear as low, New Zealand fares above OECD averages in the three indicators..

Across OECD countries, there is a widespread scepticism about opportunities for engagement and participation, as Figure 4.1C shows. In New Zealand, in line with OECD countries, positive perceptions that the government would adopt inputs provided in public consultations is found to be a key determinant of trust in the public service and the local government (Figure 2.18 and 2.20). Additionally, having the opportunity to voice one’s views has a statistically significant, albeit smaller, effect on trust in local government.

Transparency is a cornerstone of New Zealand’s public administration. The Official Information Act (OIA) was first adopted three decades ago (1982), formalising the principle of freedom of information in a pioneering legal framework. The Act’s liberal disclosure approach creates the rights to a process for accessing public information, which goes beyond just listing relevant sources and documents that could be accessed (Liddell, 1997[10]; Snell, 2006[11]). New Zealand has also been member of the Open Government Partnership since 2013 - two years after its creation - and is currently designing its fourth national action plan in order to deepen participation, transparency and accountability. The country promotes the principle of openness by default and is one of the top 9 country leaders in digital government, mainly regarding data availability and accessibility (OECD, 2020[12]). New Zealand has also advanced in the proactive disclosure of government information. In 2019 a new policy was established to proactively release of all2 Cabinet and Cabinet committee papers.

Recent experts’ assessments consider New Zealand’s regulations as strongly transparent with predictable enforcement,3 reflecting the impact of latest initiatives, such as the creation of a single user-friendly website that brings together all national laws and facilitates access to legal information for the public, or easy online access to parliamentary hearings. Indeed, strengthening and designing innovative transparency initiatives has been an important part of New Zealand’s successful strategy to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic (Box 4.1).

Beyond multiple openness initiatives and policies, New Zealand promotes broad open government literacy – understood as the combination of awareness, knowledge and skills that public officials and stakeholders need to engage successfully in open government strategies and initiatives –, which is essential to a real culture of openness. According to the OECD Open Government Survey, the country not only provides clear guidelines on open government data and stakeholder participation, but also provides training to civil servants to embody open government principles (OECD, 2021[13]).

However, as per the last report of the Global Right to Information Rating (RTI), New Zealand’s legal framework on access to public information has some limitations. Access to government information may be undermined by multiple exemptions and restrictions to disclose information included in other regulations. In addition, the scope of the Act falls short of covering Parliament and some judiciary bodies, such as the Controller or Auditor General. Additional challenges can appear regarding access to government information at the local level, as lack of clear details or insufficient training to staff and counsellors may lead to misinterpretation of the Act. For instance, although the public is allowed to access local authorities’ meetings, there are exceptions if the topics to be addressed require a closed meeting, but these exemptions are not clearly specified in the regulations. This has resulted in a high number of complaints being presented to the ombudsman regarding access to public information at the local level. According to the OECD survey, 54.7% of respondents consider that they know how the government works Figure 4.2.

Furthermore, although perceptions of transparency are overtly positive in the country, there are some population groups that find it harder than others to access public information. The proportion of respondents of the OECD Trust Survey who believe information on administrative procedures is easily accessible is lower among the less educated, the young, the Māori and respondents from Pacific communities, as well as for those who reported having financial concerns (Figure 4.3). These groups have shown a similar perception of inaccessibility when asked about their knowledge of the functioning of the government,4 which may signal that there is a need to make the functioning of government more accessible to them (Box 4.2).

Indeed, neither providing information (active transparency) nor granting the right to information to citizens through access to information laws (passive transparency) may be enough to ensure a broader culture of transparency and openness. The “right to know” needs to be complemented by coherent communication strategies that aim to better inform people and shield them from mis- and disinformation. These strategies should set clear goals, target audiences and messages, and identify the best channels for reaching diverse groups of people. Those population groups and individuals who feel left behind or excluded from wider society need to be a particular focus. For instance, the “Unstoppable Summer: A COVID-19 Public Service Announcement”, a short musical video featuring the Director General of Health and shown before broad audience events, is a good example of how best to target youth. Other OECD countries’ initiatives designed to target specific population groups may be also relevant for increasing transparency in a communicational sense (Box 4.2). These communication elements are especially relevant in a context where personal beliefs and emotions play a key role in shaping public opinion beyond objective facts, and social media facilitate widespread distribution of these messages (Schnell, 2022[14]). The adoption by the New Zealand Government of a Plain Language Act in October 2022 is a step in the right direction to improve the accessibility of key documents for the public and could be an important element in strengthening trust between public agencies and groups that may feel they have been left behind.

Only 35% of the population reported trusting the news media, making it the least trusted institution in the country (See Figure 2.1). Figure 4.4 shows that New Zealand fares below the OECD average (38.7%) and on the low end of the benchmarking group, just above Australia, the United Kingdom and Denmark. Promoting a healthy information ecosystem via a proactive and holistic “communicational” approach that promotes diverse, independent and quality media, supports media and digital literacy and considers transparency requirements and issues related to the business models of social media platforms would help prevent and counter mis- and disinformation (OECD, 2021[15]). This is of particular relevance considering the protests held in February- March 2022. A recent study found that during the protests, mis- and disinformation producers attracted more video views than all of the country’s mainstream media pages combined for the first time (Hannah, Hattotuwa and Taylor, 2022[16]).

The OECD Principles of Good Practice for Public Communication Responses to Mis- and Disinformation can help promote a whole-of-society response to the challenges presented by the spread of misleading and harmful content. The ten principles include practical examples and reiterate the importance of governments’ communicating transparently, honestly, and impartially, and of conceiving of the public communication function as a means for two-way engagement with citizens. Ultimately, the principles provide practical guidance and present a range of good practices on government interventions aimed to counter mis- and disinformation, address underlying causes of distrust, and promote openness, transparency and inclusion. These principles could also help guide reforms to the media and social media to discourage the spread of mis- and disinformation. In addition to the principles, country experience with ongoing initiatives may support the whole communication strategy (Box 4.3).

Although voting is not compulsory, levels of voter turnout in New Zealand are among the highest in the world. These levels have decreased steeply in recent decades, although in 2020 turnout levels were the highest since 1999 (New Zealand Electoral Commission, 2020[17]).According to the OECD Trust Survey, 85.1% of respondents reported voting in the 2020 Parliamentarian election elections, similar to percentages found in other high-trusting countries, such as Norway, Denmark or Sweden, and above the average across OECD countries surveyed (79%). However, New Zealanders present low levels of political engagement in other political activities - including voting in local elections (Figure 4.5) - and there is a widespread scepticism about people’s ability to influence political issues via routes other than voting.

The application of the treaty of Waitangi as the foundational document of New Zealand has resulted in a multicultural society. Accordingly, institutional arrangements have been designed and improved across time to promote and enhance inclusiveness and make every New Zealander feel politically represented. Already in 1867, a Māori electoral roll was adopted, establishing parliamentary seats for Māori representatives. In turn, the 1993 electoral reform moved from a majoritarian to a mixed-member proportional system increasing the representativeness of ethnicities and ensuring that different voices and groups can be reflected and included in policy making (Karp and Banducci, 1999[18]). Indeed, according to New Zealand’s Electoral Commission, the gap between non-Māori and Māori enrolment rates was the smallest, 3.1 percentage points in 2020, and voter turnout for those on the Māori roll has been steadily increasing, from 57.6% in 2002 to 69.1% in 2020.

While Māori leaders have been present in political life for a long time, the first Māori party was formed in the 90s, and entered Parliament only in the 2000s; generally and for Māori political parties are one of the less trusted government institutions in the country (Nguyen, Prickett and Chapple, 2020[19]). In addition, other ethnic groups such as Pacifica population do not have the same level of organization and political participation (Nguyen, Prickett and Chapple, 2020[19]). According to the OECD Trust Survey, only around four in ten New Zealanders report feel they have a say in what the government does. The less educated and those reporting financial concerns feel more vulnerable and powerless (Figure 4.6). These results are of crucial relevance, as people’s perceptions that they can influence public decisions affecting their lives is the main determinant of trust in parliament in New Zealand (Figure 2.20). Moreover, recent studies using European Social Survey data found that initiatives that open up political processes to people, provide meaningful opportunities for political participation, and make them feel empowered to participate in politics and influence what the government does, may result in higher levels of public trust and political participation (Schmidthuber, Ingrams and Hilgers, 2020[9]; Prats and Meunier, 2021[20]).

The civil society landscape in New Zealand is small. There are around one thousand groups listed in the National Residents Associations Database, but only 16.5% of New Zealanders reported participating at least once a week in sports or recreational activities and 30.2% reported volunteering through an organisation (Statistics New Zealand, 2021[21]). In interviews carried out for this study, it was also emphasized that funding was a key challenge for civil society organisations and that there was no organisation that could support civil society organisations in applying for funds, status, etc. Both of these elements may be related to feeling unheard and perceived difficulties in participating in politics (OECD, 2022).

In addition, the OECD Trust Survey shows that some population groups feel more unheard than others (Figure 4.7). Across population groups, Māori are those who have the strongest feeling of not being involved: only 36.7% of Māori believe they would have the opportunity to voice their views in decisions affecting their community. In addition, and although it is not representative, there are clear participation gaps (12 percentage points) between those who are young and reported financial concerns compared to older respondents and those who do not feel economically vulnerable. These differences can have a crucial impact on the political system. Feelings of being unheard and participation gaps were found to affect electoral behaviour (Satherley et al., 2020[22]). New Zealand’s voter trends and polarisation patterns show that there are no strong divisions among voters in relation to demographic backgrounds.

Beyond perceptions, New Zealand’s government is strongly committed to engaging people in policy making. According to New Zealand’s Cabinet Guide and Cabinet Manual, engaging and consulting with citizens is strongly recommended, and, in a number of acts, public consultation is a legislative requirement (e.g: the Local Government Actor the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act, etc). Furthermore, long-term insights briefings on key topics relevant for the future are a rather new foresight tool and public participation in policy development and is amongst the country’s main commitments in its national Open Government plan. New Zealanders can provide their feedback and make submissions to a bill, and they can also give local and central government inputs on plans through consultation listings before decisions are made. In addition, there are multiple recent initiatives to engage people and groups at the community level in both policy and service design (such as the programme to Regenerate Christchurch or the development of the Māori Strategy), which are supported by the Policy Community Engagement Tool developed and launched in December 2021 under the supervision of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (Box 4.4). The recently released brief on the State of the Public Service stresses the development of active citizenship as a key focus of the New Zealand public service (Public Sector Commission, 2022[23]).

Nevertheless, responsibility for public consultation lies with individual agencies are the ones responsible for public consultations as they liaise with stakeholders, communicate, keep records, etc. This fragmentation may hinder the systematic compilation of records and monitoring (providing summaries, registering who are the ones consulted and how often, etc), or the existence of a consistent approach to notifying stakeholders of upcoming opportunities to contribute (OECD, 2021[24]). Additionally, challenges and limits may arise related to actual implementation. For instance, during interviews carried out for this study, stakeholders mentioned timeliness as a challenge to meaningful engagement. Many reported that the first stage of engagement often takes place too late to influence policy outcomes. This, in turn, might undermine trust among those that interact with the government (OECD, 2021[24]).

Other results support these points. Evidence from New Zealand’s Survey on Community Engagement in Policy making (2021) administered by policy advisors, community representatives and engagement specialists shows that timeframes for engagement are too short. Furthermore, according to the OECD Trust Survey, only a minority of New Zealanders (44%) are confident that government institutions listen to people (Figure 4.8). Even fewer respondents (37%) believe that if they participate in a public consultation the government would adopt the opinions expressed. Less educated New Zealanders are the most skeptical about the government being open and making policies including their concerns: fewer than 1 in 3 (28%) of those who completed lower secondary education believe the government would adopt opinions expressed in a public consultation (Figure 4.9).

Other than providing inputs to government, citizens are not able to initiate legislation, and there are only very few instances of participatory or deliberative democracy. Public institutions promote top-down engagement opportunities, but people are not encouraged to participate on their own initiative. In fact, there are tools that facilitate access to members of parliament and for starting petitions. New Zealanders can also initiate (non-binding) referendums, and although this tool has barely been used since the Initiated Referendum Act (1993) and has many limitations (Morris, 2004[25]), it was found to have a positive impact on public trust (Qvortrup, 2008[26]; Morris, 2007[27]). In this regard, experiences from other OECD countries may suggest that more structured democratic innovations can be a good way to strengthen people’s political voice and reinforce trust, at least at the local level, where turnout levels are decreasing steadily, and there are no political parties (Box 4.5).

In this regard, addressing participation gaps and reaching out to people left behind may require a mix of solutions, and to this end, it is important to consider the specific context, as well as political socialisation, historic and cultural elements. For instance, during interviews it was mentioned that although Europeans consider the democratic ideal as “one person, one vote”, for Māori the idea behind democracy is that policies are collective.

A crucial starting point is to strengthen people’s self-perception of their ability to understand and participate in political processes. There is no form of participation that is enhanced when individuals feel unable to understand politics. Feeling that one can make a difference can lead to more active, effective engagement in politics and other areas of social life (Prats and Meunier, 2021[20]). The more people feel able to understand politics and have their voice heard, the more likely they are to pursue democratic endeavours (Gil de Zúñiga, Diehl and Ardévol-Abreu, 2017[29]) and the more they trust public institutions and are satisfied with democracies. New Zealand recognises that the young can play an important role in counteracting the political disengagement trend, and has developed initiatives such as the Youth Parliament, parliamentarians travelling to schools over around the country or the “Kids Voting Program”. These initiatives could benefit from other, broader activities that extend beyond civic duties or enrolment to strengthen political interest, such as the mock elections run in Norway (Box 4.6). This would also address most New Zealanders’ (83%) claim about the need to include learning about Parliament in the school curriculum.5

In addition, comprehensive, regular and representative population surveys, such as the Kiwis Count and the OECD Trust Survey, may facilitate citizen engagement and allow the government to obtain updated feedback on people’s perceptions, experiences and evaluations of public governance and services, thus reinforcing vertical accountability beyond votes or electoral periods (OECD, 2022[31]). This may complement ongoing targeted initiatives that are designed to address specific communities, such as engaging through intermediaries, setting up conversations without a framework, and community leaders’ selecting priorities.

This section summarizes key results and presents potential policy avenues to improve openness and strengthen public trust

  • New Zealand has put in place multiple initiatives to promote openness as an important value of public governance. Indeed, promoting transparency and opening the government to the public has been the cornerstone of the country’s successful strategy to tackle the pandemic. In particular, the daily briefings in which the Prime Minister and the Director General of Health directly addressed New Zealanders allowed them to establish trust with their audience through open and honest communication, inspire and motivate audiences, and establish a “duty of care” relationship through inclusive and empathetic communications (Beattie and Priestley, 2021[32]). It is possible to capitalize on these lessons and improve openness and transparency in the regular functioning of the administration.

  • Three-quarters of the population expect information to be easily available, and, indeed, New Zealand has put in place several law and initiatives to this end. Yet, whenever the information is not restricted, there are still challenges for some social groups to a, either because the information is presented in difficult-to-understand bureaucratic language, or because it is not proactively communicated There is room to promote more proactive disclosure of information.

  • In turn, the New Zealand government could go beyond the traditional understanding of transparency towards a new and broader communicational sense, which requires planning of how public information is going to be communicated and anticipating people’s needs to better arm them against mis- and disinformation. These plans include extending efforts to use plain language, such as the recently introduced plain language bill; setting goals; targeting audiences and messages; and identifying best channels to reach different population groups

  • The news media is the least trusted institution in New Zealand, with only 35% of the population trusting it. The country also fares at the low end of the benchmarking countries in this area. There is room to develop a holistic approach to counter the spread of mis- and disinformation. Ways to do this include promoting diverse, independent and quality media; supporting media and digital literacy; considering transparency requirements and issues related to the business models of social media platforms; and exploring other ways to strengthen the information ecosystem. Any initiatives in this area will need to directly tackle difficult issues such as existing financial incentives social and some conventional media companies to facilitate the spread of misinformation and the potential trade-offs implicit between halting the spread of misinformation and protecting fundamental values such as freedom of speech.

  • New Zealand needs also to enhance political representation and proactively reach out to people who feel left behind, preventing participation gaps from becoming structural political inequalities. This will require the country to keep investing in and improving initiatives related to political socialisation and outreach to specific segments of the population, such as the young, the less educated, Māori or citizens from the Pacifica communities. These initiatives should be put in place on a regular basis, beyond specific policies or reforms. Furthermore, even though specific agencies are responsible, results from the exercises should be shared in broad national dialogues and lessons from the communities’ experiences should be made public in a co-ordinated manner, in order to promote institutional inclusion and nation-wide learning.

  • Less than half of New Zealanders expect to be consulted on issues affecting their community and only 37% expect that the views expressed by people in public consultations will be adopted. New Zealand should ensure that opportunities for citizens’ engagement are meaningful and broad - including instances for deliberation and participation, especially at the local level - so that people perceive a sincere invitation to inclusive policy making. This type of engagement goes beyond the more procedural mentality of consultations, by involving people during early stages of policy making, when problems and potential solutions are being identified, and responding to and using the inputs they provide in the development of regulations.

Public integrity refers to the consistent alignment of, and adherence to, shared ethical values, principles and norms for upholding and prioritising the public interest over private interests in the public sector (OECD, 2017[33]). Promoting public integrity and preventing corruption is crucial to building people’s confidence in government and public institutions. Inversely, corruption implies abusing the trust that has been placed in a public duty. By definition, corruption erodes trust in public institutions. Indeed, research in European countries shows a strong correlation between perceptions of corruption and lower levels of trust (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2015[34]).A recent study of 173 European regions found that the absence of corruption – i.e. citizens expect their public officials to act ethically – was the strongest institutional determinant of citizens’ trust in the public administration (Van de Walle and Migchelbrink, 2020[35]).

The OECD Framework on Drivers of Trust in Public Institutions considers integrity in relation to the government’s mandate to use powers and public resources ethically, by upholding high standards of behaviour, committing to fight corruption, and promoting accountability. In the case of New Zealand, the survey includes two specific questions on perceptions of petty corruption, as well as political influence (and horizontal accountability among branches of government):

  • If a government employee was offered money by a citizen or a firm for speeding up access to a public service, how unlikely or likely do you think it is that they would refuse it?  

  • If a court is about to make a decision that could negatively impact the government’s image, how unlikely or likely do you think it is that the court would make the decision free from political influence? 

According to major institutions and indexes, New Zealand is one of the least corrupt countries in the world and experts’ assessments report that members of the executive or their agents would never, or hardly ever, grant favours in exchange for bribes, kickbacks, or other material inducements.6 Law enforcement is effective, institutions and regulations are transparent, and a comprehensive legal framework is in place to combat corruption and sanction corrupt practices (GAN Integrity, 2020[36]). The country has historically ranked amongst those with the lowest levels of perceived corruption, equalling Denmark and Finland, and around one in two New Zealanders believe that institutions will use power and resources ethically (Figure 4.10).

In practice, there are very few corruption cases, and as per regular surveys carried out by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), they do not seem to have influence trust. The percentage of people who agree or strongly agree to trust the SFO has increased steadily since 2012, and New Zealand’s biggest bribery scandal - the Auckland’s Road Maintenance Case, in which six people were charged in relation to alleged corruption - has not affected this figure; on the contrary, it is seen as an exemplary, fairly handled case.

Despite this, results from the OECD Trust Survey show that less than half of survey respondents report believing that courts would act free from political influence (43.9%) (Figure 4.11) and over a quarter the population believe that public employees would accept money offered to speed up access to public services (27%) (Figure 4.12). Although this result still leaves New Zealand below the OECD average-and near the bottom of the OECD for whether a public servant would accept a bribe, it nevertheless contrasts with other sources that provide better assessments about the absence of corruption. This might reflect scepticism about public integrity not picked up elsewhere, but is also difficult to rule out some degree of survey specific bias. Because variables of the integrity dimension, were found to have a statistically significant effect of people’s trust in the public service and parliament (Figure 2.18 and 2.19) developing better understanding of this result should be of importance to the New Zealand public service.

These findings could be linked to an uneven distribution of perceptions of risk of undue influence and corruption at the central and local level (further addressed in next section), rather than to broader evaluations of the public service. Indeed, most respondents (61%) of the OECD Trust Survey also reported that the integrity of people working in government strongly influenced their trust in public institutions (Figure 2.4). This may be because New Zealand has a long-established merit-based civil service, and the recent Public Service Act (2020) includes merit-based appointments amongst its five key principles of the public service. Indeed, public employees are recruited based on advertised positions and skills and must adhere in their daily work to core values and standards that guide the public service. This is a fundamental component of any public sector integrity system (Charron, Dahlström and Lapuente, 2016[37]; Charron et al., 2017[38]), as a culture of integrity cannot be achieved without a skilled and motivated civil service, committed to the public’s interests, and delivering value for money for citizens.

Cynical perceptions on public integrity can be also related to a corruption-focused narrative guiding most of New Zealand’s initiatives on the issue. Perhaps because of its high levels of trust as well as low levels of corruption, most of country’s efforts have been concentrated on tackling and sanctioning undue behaviour, instead of investing in prevention, such as specific training or risk management of integrity issues. This approach, which has been possible because of a strong culture of ethics and a trust-based public service, is currently turning towards initiatives to preserve and strengthen integrity.

According to OECD’s Recommendation on Public Integrity, providing training to build capacities and equip public officials to manage integrity issues that may appear in their daily work is crucial to reinforce a culture of integrity. In this regard, relevant training experiences from OECD countries - in terms of timing, target, frequency, etc. - could be useful to take into account in New Zealand (Box 4.7).

Additionally, including integrity aspects in risk management could be relevant to support New Zealand’s changes. Internal control and risk management policies reduce the vulnerability of public sector organisations to fraud and corruption, while ensuring that governments are operating optimally to deliver programmes that benefit citizens (OECD, 2020[40]). Efforts to audit and monitor different agencies could be strengthened by embedding integrity objectives into existing internal control and risk management policies and practices, informing risk definition with updated evidence (e.g. by regular surveys), and by identifying high-risks areas, as many OECD countries do (Box 4.8).

Beyond corrupt practices that are criminalised and sanctioned, such as active and passive bribery, there are other, more subtle activities that are not necessarily illegal but may steer public decision making away from the public interest. These may include using personal connections to influence policy, or providing decision makers with biased or manipulated data, for example.

According to a report prepared by the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand may suffer from ‘cosy-ism’, defined as a high degree of overly cosy relationships between members of a small society (Rashbrooke, 2017[41]). This implies that close relationships built by educational, cultural and political socialisation may influence (and bias) political decisions and appointments, translating economic or educational disparities into unequal opportunities and power over politics. Indeed, evidence from the OECD Trust Survey shows that only 29% of respondents reporting the lowest levels of education believe courts would make decisions free from political influence, and the percentage increases to 52% among those with highest levels of education (Figure 4.13).

In addition, 37% of respondents from the OECD Trust Survey have family members or friends who work or have worked in the public sector. Not surprisingly, those who reported to have a closer connection with the public sector are also those who present better integrity perceptions (Figure 4.14).Although half of New Zealanders are confident that institutions would use power or resources ethically, one in three (34%) reported cynical expectations about government institutions acting in the best interest of all.

Taking into consideration the above, New Zealand could pursue some initiatives to ensure policies are made in the public interest, and to preserve the integrity of interaction and stakeholder engagement during policy making, accompanied with proper communication of these initiatives. These include requiring disclosure of stakeholders’ names and the activities they carry out if they intend to influence policies or requiring parliamentarians to make their agendas transparent and open to the public. Furthermore, New Zealand could reopen discussions on developing lobbying regulations, currently inexistent. Such dialogue should be open to the broader society and consider different concerns, challenges and interests, following the example of discussions carried out by Ireland when designing its lobbying regulations (Box 4.9).

In addition, in interviews conducted for this study, it was highlighted that concerns about personal networks and policy outcomes were higher with respect to institutions at the local level. Subnational units and institutions are not necessarily affected by central government integrity policies and initiatives; moreover, officials may not be sufficiently trained to identify and prevent undue practices. In this regard, it could be relevant to consider establishing a Public Service Commissioner for the local level, responsible for ensuring coherence with national integrity efforts and policies, as well as for dealing with integrity issues at the local level. A good example that could be a relevant starting point is the experience of the French integrity advisors (Box 4.10).

Perceptions of vested interests influencing politics also extend to political finance (Transparency International NZL, 2019[42]). Democracy and politics need money to survive. However, if funding is not regulated, it can unbalance political competition and generate or exacerbate inequalities. According to a survey carried out by the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, only one out of four New Zealanders trust the way in which political parties are funded (Chapple and Anderson, 2021[43]), and there are some rules regarding reporting and monitoring that need to be better defined. In New Zealand, there is no ban on donations from foreign interests or from companies with ongoing contracts with the government. In turn, not all donors are required to report on their donations to political campaigns (IDEA, 2022[44]). Unregulated political finance presents clear risks related to funding sources and its legal status, as well as loopholes in regulations could leave room to privilege private interests biasing political competition. In this regard, experiences aiming to make political finance more transparent and easy to monitor can be relevant to consider and implement in the country (Box 4.11). (Transparency International NZL, 2019[42]) (IDEA, 2022[44])

This section summarizes key results and presents potential policy avenues to improve integrity and strengthen public trust.

  • Public service and public officials in New Zealand are generally perceived as being honest and devoted to the public interest. They work on a trust basis and follow high standards of behaviour that are historically and culturally rooted. However, there is room to improve and better preserve integrity as a guiding principle and foundation of the public administration. New Zealand could also continue to take a more preventive integrity approach, investing more in training beyond awareness-raising, and including integrity elements in risk management and internal control. These efforts could be part of a comprehensive national integrity strategy, co-ordinated at the central government, but accompanied by integrity initiatives at the local level, aiming to bridge gaps and avoid legal loopholes.

  • In addition, to improve perceptions of political integrity and shield public policies from undue influence, New Zealand could reopen discussion on developing lobbying regulations, as well as tighten political finance laws by defining clearer targets and broadening the scope of transparency requirements and bans. There is also a need to examine how potential conflicts of interest are managed at the local government level where personal links may influence resource management decisions. While these links are inevitable in a small country, approaches to managing them more transparently could enhance perceived integrity.

While no individual value can summarise an entire society, it is commonly noted that the notion of “fairness” plays a similar role in New Zealand society to that played by “freedom” in the United States or the trio of “liberté, egalité, fraternité” in France (Fischer, 2012[45]; Levine, 2022[46]). This is reflected both in popular culture and in civil society. In popular culture, the phrase “fair enough” is a common response in conversation. New Zealand’s second-longest running television show is “Fair Go” (first aired, 1977) which focuses on investigative journalism and consumer affairs. At the more formal level, the 1985 Royal Commission on the Electoral System listed fairness as the first of 10 criteria for evaluating electoral systems, while the Inland Revenue Department (responsible for tax) uses the phrase “it’s our job to be fair”.

Perhaps influenced by the focus on fairness, and perhaps also reflecting how New Zealand’s national narrative has evolved, many of the main historical milestones celebrated in New Zealand can be linked to the idea of fairness. The Treaty of Waitangi – New Zealand’s founding document signed in 1840 – can be seen in terms of fair treatment by the British Crown establishing that Māori have the rights and privileges of British subjects (article 3) and equal protection of Māori property rights (article 2), although differences in English and Māori versions and their interpretation may have blurred that sense of fairness . In turn, New Zealand celebrates its status as the first self-governing country in the world to grant women the vote in 1893, a milestone in political fairness.

Achieving fairness remains a crucial issue, as disposable income inequality in New Zealand is higher than the OECD average despite market income inequality being around the OECD average, owing to below-average redistribution through taxes and transfers (OECD, 2022[47]). Progressing towards an even fairer society requires redressing structural trends affecting vulnerable groups, in particular as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in these groups are still not fully visible.

The OECD framework on the drivers of trust defines fairness as having two components: improving living conditions for all and providing consistent treatment to people and business regardless of their background and identity. To capture aspects of fairness, the survey implemented in New Zealand included three questions on the fairness dimension:

  • If you or a member of your family apply for a government benefit or service (e.g. unemployment benefits or other forms of income support), how unlikely or likely do you think it is that your application would be treated fairly? 

  • If a government employee interacts with the public in your area, how unlikely or likely do you think it is that they would treat all people equally regardless of their gender, sexual identity, ethnicity, or country of origin?  

  • If a government employee has contact with the public in the area where you live, how unlikely or likely is it that they would treat both rich and poor people equally?  

Compared to similar OECD countries, perceptions of the likelihood of fair treatment from public institutions in New Zealand is around the OECD average. Figure 4.15 shows that the proportion of people believing that it is likely that someone applying for a government service or benefit would be treated fairly is below that for Ireland, the Netherlands, Canada, or Great Britain, although higher than for Denmark, Norway, Australia, or Sweden. At first glance, this might suggest that fairness should be an area of at least some concern for New Zealand government institutions. However, some care should be applied when interpreting the data. In particular, of the four countries in the chart with levels of institutional trust similar to or better than New Zealand, three report lower levels of perceived fairness (Denmark, Norway, Sweden). One interpretation of this otherwise counter-intuitive result is that countries with higher expectations of fairness from government institutions both judge institutional performance more harshly, but also generally have more trustworthy institutions as a result.

Figure 4.16 looks at how the perceived likelihood that someone applying for a government service or benefit would be treated unfairly varies across different demographic groups. While there is some variation in perceived fairness across age groups (with younger age groups being less likely to expect fair behaviour) and income (with low and middle income groups being less likely to expect fair behaviour) the largest differences in expectations of fairness are among different ethnic groups. People identifying as Māori or Pacific are much less likely to indicate that they believe an application for government benefits or services would be treated fairly. Interestingly perceptions of fairness are lower among the Pacific population (43%) than for Māori (49%). At the other extreme, Asian New Zealanders are more likely than other population groups to hold expectations of fair treatment (69%).

Information on people’s experience of discrimination has been collected in New Zealand since 2008 as part of Statistics New Zealand’s wider collection of well-being measures. This information can be triangulated against the information from the OECD Trust Survey presented above to help understand perceived fairness. Generally, the picture of experienced discrimination in Figure 4.17 below is consistent with the patterns in Figure 4.16. Experience of discrimination decreases with age after the mid-30s and is higher for women than for men. Māori and Pacific people are more likely to have experienced discrimination than New Zealand Europeans. The main difference between the two data sources is that Asian New Zealanders are more likely to report having experienced discrimination than New Zealand Europeans but also are more likely to report an expectation of fair treatment. This might reflect different experiences across different ethnic groups as to the source of experienced discrimination as the survey question captures discrimination across a wide range of contexts, including both government agencies and wider social interactions.

One theme that emerges from both Figure 4.16 and Figure 4.17 is the important role of socio-economic factors in experiences of discrimination and in perceptions of fairness. Low- and middle-income New Zealanders are less likely to expect fair treatment in applying for government services or benefits, while unemployed New Zealanders are much more likely to have experienced discrimination (29.4%) than full time employees (18.1%) or people not in the labour force (14.5%) (Figure 4.19), which show the proportion of people who expect that a public employee would treat people equally regardless of their gender orientation, ethnicity, or income. In contrast to general expectations of fair treatment presented in Figure 4.15, where New Zealand sits in the middle of comparable countries, New Zealand performs near the bottom of the same group for expectations of equal treatment for socioeconomic characteristics or income (although still near the middle of the OECD overall). Although Great Britain, Norway, and Australia rank lower than New Zealand when it comes to treatment based on income, the gap between New Zealand and these countries is small, while the gap between New Zealand and the top-performing countries – Denmark and the Netherlands – is large (more than 10 percentage points). A similar pattern is observed for perceived unequal treatment based on other characteristics such as gender orientation or ethnicity.

Although fairness is of fundamental importance to New Zealanders, according to the econometric analysis presented in Chapter 2, fairness has a smaller relative effect as driver of differences in trust within the New Zealand population when compared to other issues such as openness, responsiveness, and reliability. Questions relating to fairness had little impact on trust in the public service or Parliament. In fact, local government was the only institution for which fairness showed up as an important driver of trust (Figure 2.20). Improvements in whether people expect public employees to treat rich and poor people equally could result in improvements in trust of up to 5.5 percentage points. The ongoing process for reviewing the roles of local government could consider mechanisms for ensuring consistent treatment of different population groups, including through proactive engagement with those who may feel excluded.

The relative lack of impact of fairness on trust in the public service and Parliament may be due to a number of different causes. Given the proportion of New Zealanders reporting experience of discrimination, it is unlikely to be due to a lack of experience of unfairness. Instead, two alternative hypotheses present themselves. First, it may be that, in addition to those asked in the survey, there are ways in which unfairness is experienced in New Zealand. Alternatively, it might simply be that there is more variation in other aspects of institutional performance in New Zealand – openness, responsiveness, reliability, service quality – and that peoples’ experiences in these areas dominate the impact of fairness on levels of institutional trust.

Absence of discrimination in the provision of services is essential to build trust towards institutions in a diverse society. Having diverse groups of people in public life, including the young and elderly, those living farther away from the capital or other large city, women, and citizens with a migrant background, will lead to more responsive policy making, and increased perceptions of fairness (Nolan-Flecha, 2019[48]) (OECD, 2020[49]). A key focus for the public service in addressing this has been to improve the diversity of the public service generally and staff in senior positions. Figure 4.20 shows that, while representation for Māori in the public service is very close to the proportion of Māori in the working age population across both the public service as a whole and among managers, this is not the case for other population groups. The Pacific and Middle East and Latin America (MELA) groups are proportionately represented in the public service as a whole (more than proportionately in the case of the Pacific group) but are under-represented at management levels. Asian New Zealanders, by way of contrast, are under-represented in both groups.

In fact, the picture presented in Figure 4.20 above probably underestimates the success of the Public Service in pursuing ethnic diversity goals but may overstate fairness gains more generally. Over the previous two decades, New Zealand’s Asian and Middle East and Latin America populations have been growing rapidly, creating a moving target for the public service to pursue. For example, between 2013 and 2018, the proportion of New Zealanders of Asian ethnicity increased from 12.2% of the population to 15.7%. Over the period from 2016 to 2020, the proportion of people in the public service of Asian ethnicity increased from 8.9% to 11.6%.

Despite relatively rapid changes in the ethnic composition of the public service at all levels, there is less evidence that the public service is effective at creating a wider sense of fairness among groups that report facing discrimination. For example, despite Māori having good representation within the public service – including at managerial levels – perceived average discrimination remains high among Māori and levels of institutional trust tend to be lower than for other population groups. In contrast, despite a larger gap in representation, Asian New Zealanders report lower levels of discrimination than Māori and have higher levels of institutional trust. The causes of this are various but are likely to be linked both to higher levels of socio-economic disadvantage among Māori and the persistent effect of historic grievances. Efforts to build and strengthen a diverse and representative public service should be maintained and are likely to be a necessary condition for high levels of institutional trust. Further improvements in this area, however, are unlikely to be sufficient in themselves to significantly increase trust.

In terms of gender representation, New Zealand has made remarkable progress both at the political and administrative levels. The share of women in managerial positions in the public service increased from 39.% in 2011 to 53.5% in 2021 (Public Service Commission, 2021). In addition, in 2022, slightly more than half (50.4%) of parliamentarians in New Zealand are women, consolidating New Zealand as the OECD leading country in this indicator (IPU, 2022).

The second component of the fairness definition in the OECD framework on the drivers of trust refers to improving living conditions for all. 45% of New Zealanders are confident that government institutions will improve socio-economic conditions for all (Figure 4.21). Only 25% indicated they did not have confidence. This question was not asked in other OECD countries, so comparative data is not available.

A striking issue where New Zealand fares comparatively high and with the potential of replicating inequalities over time is child poverty.

A continued focus on tackling child poverty will be crucial to achieve fairness and strengthen trust, especially among Māori and Pacifica groups. Income inequality in New Zealand, after accounting for both taxes and benefits, is slightly above the OECD average (Figure 4.22, panel A). The relative poverty rate, measured as the proportion of people with less than 50% of median income, is also similar to the OECD average (Figure 4.22, panel B). However, child poverty remains high by OECD standards. Prior to the pandemic, the child poverty rate (16.9%) was substantively higher than the OECD average (13.0%). Moreover, it was concentrated in Māori (19.6%) and Pacific (21.2%) communities (Figure 4.22, panel C). As already noted above, Māori and Pacific have lower levels of trust in public institutions than other groups in New Zealand. Addressing child poverty is one of the multiple avenues that can be pursued to help improve trust among these groups.

It should be noted that reducing child poverty is a key welfare target in New Zealand, and that data suggests it has been declining. The most recent figures, from June 2021, indicate that 2 of 3 of the three key government measures of the number of children in poverty declined during the COVID pandemic Figure 4.22. However, caution must be used in interpreting these figures, due to their timing. They may not necessarily fully account for the full economic impact of the pandemic. They may also be affected by COVID responses active at the time, and do not take into account benefit increases in the 2021 budget.

This section summarizes key results and presents potential policy avenues to improve fairness and strengthen public trust.

  • Fairness is a core value of New Zealand society. 42% of New Zealanders expect that public employees would treat rich and poor people differently (38% on average in OECD countries). Perceptions of discrimination are higher for Māori, the unemployed, women and some of the younger cohorts Proactively seeking engagement with these groups, particularly at the local level, and ensuring that there are specific spaces and channels to communicate with them can help enhance fairness perceptions and, in turn, strengthen trust. Deliberative processes, particularly at the local level and in regions farther away from main cities, could be an effective engagement tool.

  • Important efforts have been made to ensure a diverse workforce. Māori representation in public employment is close to proportionate across the total public sector (16.4% of public servants as opposed to 16.7% of the population) and lags only a little in terms of staff in management positions (15.8% in 2021 compared to 14.8% in 2017). The Pacific population is well represented in the total public sector (10.2% of public servants as opposed to 8.3% of the population) but is under-represented at the level of management (6.5%). The Asian and MELA population groups are currently under-represented in the public service but the proportion of public servants in these groups has been growing strongly over the last decade relative to other groups.

  • There is a balanced representation of women in the administration, including at the managerial level, and New Zealand is the top OECD performer on gender equality at the political level. There is room to improve the representation, at senior levels, of population groups such as people identifying as Pacific or of Asian background and people from the Middle East. Efforts to build a diverse public workforce should be maintained as a necessary condition to strengthen public trust and a wider range of population groups beyond ethnic identification and gender should be considered


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← 1. Transparency refers to stakeholder access to, and use of, public information and data concerning the entire public decision-making process, including policies, initiatives, salaries, meeting agendas and minutes, budget allocations and spending, etc. Information and data disclosed should serve a purpose and meet citizens’ needs.

← 2. Excluding appointments and honours papers. Cabinet and committee papers are to be released and published online, with the approval of the relevant portfolio minister, no later than 30 business days after final Cabinet decisions have been made unless there is good reason not to publish all or part of the material, or to delay the release. The normal assessments for releasing official information, and a due diligence process to consider potential liability that might arise from publication, must occur prior to proactive release.

← 3. Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem Project), Transparent Laws with Predictable Enforcement, 2021.

← 4. Only one in three New Zealanders reported to have little knowledge about how central government works, but this proportion is bigger among the young, the less educated, Māori and people from Pacific communities.

← 5. New Zealand’s Survey on Parliamentary Engagement (December 2021).

← 6. As part of the Varieties of Democracy Project, experts are asked How routinely do members of the executive (the head of state, the head of government, and cabinet ministers), or their agents, grant favours in exchange for bribes, kickbacks, or other material inducements? Responses may rate between 0 (It is routine and expected) to 4 (1: It never, or hardly ever, happens).

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