Personal Perspective: Financial Integrity is central to New Zealand’s wellbeing

By Suzanne Snively, DNZM
5 October 2022

I put myself through university in the United States by working for one of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s pilot Community Development Agencies based in Portland, Oregon. It taught me that as important as it is to provide support services to the needs of vulnerable people, this on its own was insufficient to create employment and reduce poverty.

While working at the Community Action Program with the aim of addressing poverty I acquired US $4 million in federal funding to set up a residential drug rehabilitation program (Janus) for returning Vietnam veterans that still exists. I also established a local free medical service in a poor community and brought together unemployed youth to amplify their voices with the objective of reducing their alienation.

One of my economics professors, Millie Howe, brought my attention to New Zealand. At that time in the early 1970s, as well as having a universal public health system and a high electoral turnout, including of its youth, New Zealand also had a low level of unemployment and a high level of income equality. It had the fourth highest GDP per capita at that time. A year later I arrived in Wellington on a Fulbright Scholarship, in the rain, where it was love at first sight.

The economic indicators that attracted me to New Zealand have gone backwards. I have often joked that there seems to be a causal relationship related to my arrival here.

Unemployment and inequality have increased. Voter turnout is going down amongst younger voters. Although there’s more transparency about the level of poverty, the prospect of reducing it is elusive.

It is clear that something must change if New Zealand is to return to permanent low employment, have sufficient resources to support a universal public health system and provide quality jobs.

An underutilised asset is New Zealand’s international reputation. New Zealand has always been perceived as having a public sector with very low levels of corruption and considered a trusted place to do business.

So, when I was asked to join Transparency International New Zealand (TINZ) in 2010, I agreed, seeing it as an opportunity to be instrumental in leveraging New Zealand's reputational advantages.

For this to happen, it was important to verify that low levels of corruption were real, not just perception and improve TINZ’s image and visibility. We did this by partnering with the Office of the Auditor General to co-host forums where  public sector officials discussed ways to continuously improve the integrity of the public sector.

At that time, a survey showed that fewer than 5% of New Zealanders had awareness of the Corruption Perceptions Index or TINZ.

To address this, TINZ appointed a highly respected Patron - the former Governor General of New Zealand, Sir Anand Satyanand.

TINZ then set out to engage as many people as possible in the research for a revised National Integrity System Assessment (NIS), under the project management of former Banking Ombudsman, Liz Brown with an independent review team, led by Helen Sutch.

The NIS project was launched in 2011. Launch attendees then participated in workshops to begin discussing the pillars of the NIS based on their expertise.

The NIS framework consists of pillars for the Executive, Legislative, Judiciary branches of government, the Public Sector, Police, Supreme Auditor (Auditor General), Ombudsman, Electoral Commission, Media, Political Parties, Civil Society and Business. It was initially developed by New Zealander Jeremy Pope who co-founded TINZ’s global parent Transparency International, created the first New Zealand NIS in 2002, and served as Human Rights Commissioner.

It became clear while undertaking the NIS that more analysis was required of the business sector and there were insufficient resources to cover a specific assessment of the integrity of the financial system

In a 2016 Listener interview, Emmanuel Lulan, Chief Ethics Officer for L’Oreal, said that despite being one of the world’s most ethical businesses, L’Oreal found it difficult to find a bank with similar values. After hearing this during a presentation to Wellington businesswomen, Financial Services Federation CEO Lyn McMoran encouraged me to progress a financial integrity system assessment (FISA). Lyn believes that it will demonstrate that there are ethical financial organisations in New Zealand.

And so, after several years of discussion, review and various versions, the FISA methodology was launched in 2019 and an online self-assessment process to collect aggregate information was developed by Cameron Smith, Omni Risk.

The FISA Online Self-Assessment is now ready to go out to financial organisations. Their voluntary participation on its own will demonstrate that the financial sector is as good as New Zealand is perceived.

Increasing New Zealand’s brand will lead to greater returns on investment across the economy. Time will tell whether this will in turn lead to more quality job creation, greater income equality and a tax base that can resource timely universal access to our public health system and other public services.

It will be clear immediately when they participate in the self-assessment which financial organisations aspire to be real leaders in financial integrity.

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