It is widely known and accepted that more often than not, grievances and complaints about government bureaucracies, whether arising from the public or from within the organization, tend to fall on deaf ears. The legal systems in place in many countries that aim to address such grievances are found to be inadequate as they are slow, expensive, public and far from user-friendly. In addition, the courts of law may be in disarray, subject to corruption and defaulting in the rule of law. The Complaints and Ombudsman’s offices – sometimes separate but often combined – provide an option for addressing such grievances within the local government system. The institution of Ombudsman gives individuals an opportunity to place complaints about the practices of government/local authority before an independent and expert body, in addition or as an alternative to utilising existing provisions such as Parliament, the Judiciary, and internal complaints procedures. Ideally, an Ombudsman’s Office must not be captive to the organizations it is supposed to monitor, but rather be independent of them. It is this independence which, above all, distinguishes recognised Ombudsman arrangements from other complaints procedures.
The Ombudsman constitutes an Office that independently receives and investigates allegations of maladministration.
It does not compete with the courts, or act as a further body to which those unsuccessful in the courts can appeal. The primary function of the Ombudsman is to examine:
a decision, process, recommendation, act of omission or commission which is contrary to law, rules or regulations, or is a departure from established practice or procedure, unless it is bona fide and has valid reason; is perverse, arbitrary or unreasonable, unjust, biased, oppressive or discriminatory; based on irrelevant grounds; or, involves the exercise of powers or the failure or refusal to do so for reasons of corrupt or improper motives such as bribery, jobbery, favouritism, nepotism, and administrative excesses; and,
neglect, inattention, delay, incompetence, inefficiency and ineptitude in the administration or discharge of duties and responsibilities.
Linkage to Transparency
Creation of a Complaints and Ombudsman’s office in itself is a testimony to the importance an organization or local authority institution attaches to transparency and accountability. Complaints to the Ombudsman may result in remedial action being taken to resolve maladministration in particular cases – including corrupt practices – and, in a broader context, help to restore confidence in the integrity of institutions.
How it Works – The Key Elements
In view of the role of an ombudsman as described above – under purpose – the law establishing an Ombudsman office often deliberately elects to place a single person, the Ombudsman (or Ombudsperson), as the representative of the institution.
Essential features of the Ombudsman’s Office include:
independence of the ombudsman from the organizations the Ombudsman has the power to investigate;
Typical Functions of the Office of Ombudsman include:
To receive and investigate allegations of maladministration including corruption (an Ombudsman will need to tackle corruption where it is the cause of malfunction in the administration).
To review and to monitor declarations of income and assets made by senior public officials.
The above functions are indicative but not inclusive of all functions of the Office.
Term of office. To ensure independence of the Ombudsman Office, a fixed term of office needs to be laid down which makes it impossible for him or her to be dismissed before this term expires. Or, in the event that they can be dismissed prematurely, special procedural and substantive conditions must be enshrined in statutory provisions, to guard against any political or administrative influence that might prejudice the independence of the Ombudsman’s Office.
Box 54: Some indicators for assessing the Office of Ombudsman as an integrity pillar
1. Is there an Office of the Ombudsman or a comparable institution?
2. Is the public generally aware of the existence of any such Office? If so, is the Office respected by the community?
3. Does the Office have adequate budget and is it adequately staffed?
4. Is the appointment of an Ombudsman made in a non-partisan manner?
5. Is the office-holder protected from arbitrary removal from office by the government of the day?
6. Does the Executive at the Local Authority respect and act on the reports of the Office?
7. Is there ease of access for complainants?
8. Can complainants complain anonymously where they believe they might suffer reprisals if their identity is known?
Source: Pope, Jeremy, TI sourcebook 2000, Chapter 10; http://www.transparency.org
The King County Office of Citizen Complaints - Ombudsman, USA
National Office of the Ombudsman - Northern Ireland
Alberta Office of the Ombudsman - Frequently Asked Questions
Further information and contacts
Pope, Jeremy (2000). Transparency International Sourcebook.
(Chapter 24: The Right to Information--Information, Public Awareness and Public Records).
Transparency International (TI), Otto-Suhr-Allee 97-99, 10585 Berlin, Germany
Tel.: +49-30-343-8200; Fax: +49-30-34703912
King County, USA
Office of Citizen Complaints-Ombudsman,
400 Yesler Way, Room 240, Seattle, WA 98104, USA.
Tel: +1-206-296-3452; Fax: +1-206-296-0948
Northern Ireland, UK
The Ombudsman, Freepost BEL 1478, Belfast, BT1 6BR
Tel: +44-28-9023-3821; Fax: +44-28-9023-4912
Office of the Ombudsman,
10303 - Jasper Ave., NW, Suite 2800, Edmonton, AB T5J 5C3
Tel.: +1-780-427-2756; Fax: +1-780-427-2759