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Ombudsman considers privacy of SSC chief executive salary details

12 February 2020

The State Services Commission has updated the information it makes available in its Senior Pay Reports after an investigation by the Chief Ombudsman into information about public service chief executive remuneration.

A case note released by Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier says an Official Information Act request sought a detailed break-down of public service chief executive pay for the years in question, including information on their base salary, performance pay and any allowances or other payments.

The State Services Commission had proactively published information that explained how chief executive remuneration was set, as well as the process and criteria for assessing their performance. It also published information on chief executive pay in its annual Senior Pay Reports, which detailed the total annual remuneration for each individual chief executive in $10,000 bands.

However, the SSC declined to provide any more granular information on privacy grounds, citing section 9(2)(a) of the Official Information Act 1982. The requester complained to the Ombudsman.

The case note says the Chief Ombudsman noted that the Local Government Act 2002 requires councils to disclose the total remuneration of the chief executive in their annual report, and considered that the public service should be no less transparent than their local government counterparts.

"In this case, there was a low privacy interest in the total annual remuneration for each chief executive. There is a strong public interest in transparency and accountability when it comes to remuneration for public service leaders, which outweighs the low privacy interest in the information.

"The Chief Ombudsman formed the opinion that section 9(2)(a) did not provide good reason to withhold information on individual chief executives’ total annual remuneration."

Strong public interest

Mr Boshier said that while there was a strong public interest in receiving meaningful information about chief executive pay, this needed to be carefully balanced against the harm in releasing information.

"The Chief Ombudsman considered that the public interest did not outweigh the high privacy interest at play, and that section 9(2)(a) provided good reason to withhold information on the individual components that made up individual chief executives’ annual remuneration."

However, the Chief Ombudsman considered there needed to be a level of transparency about the amount of performance-based remuneration, in order to promote public confidence. This was particularly important given the State Services Commissioner’s decision to remove performance pay in 2018.

"While SSC had published a reasonably fulsome account of the process for assessing chief executive remuneration, the Chief Ombudsman considered there was a strong public interest in the release of further information about the expenditure of government funds, in order to promote transparency and accountability.

"The Chief Ombudsman considered SSC should release aggregated information on performance-related pay (Earn Back, Performance Pay and one-off discretionary payments), in a manner that did not reveal performance assessment information for individual chief executives. He also considered that SSC should release further information which explained what the possible components of chief executive remuneration were for the years in question."

The case note says the SSC accepted the Chief Ombudsman’s recommendation to release the total remuneration, and agreed to release aggregated information on performance-related pay. SSC advised it would also release the same information for chief executives of tertiary education institutions, district health boards and other statutory Crown entities, as they are also included in its annual Senior Pay Reports.

Last updated on the 12th February 2020