I’m here to help (Toronto Sun)
July 8, 2017
8 July, 2017
As Ontario’s ombudsman, my job is to make the government work better for you.
Paul Dubé, Guest Columnist
July 8, 2017
This is a time of significant growth and impact for the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman.
Our mandate, expanded last year, now includes not just provincial government bodies, but municipalities, universities and school boards — meaning we can now help more Ontarians with a wider range of problems than ever before.
But as I travel the province, I’m constantly reminded that not everyone knows what an ombudsman is, much less what our office can do for them. To mangle the great Churchill quote, never have we had so much power, to serve so many, who know so little about us. Even when what we do is clear — we investigate and resolve complaints about more than 1,000 public sector bodies — many people are confounded about how we do it. Most people ask: “If you have the power to investigate, but no power to enforce your recommendations, how do you hold government accountable? How does that work?” My answer? Quite well. Because our power – and this goes for ombudsmen across Canada and around the world — is in our voice.
That voice need not always be heard from the rooftops. Often, it works best behind the scenes, as our staff connect people with the right officials to fix their problems, encouraging local or frontline solutions, without a need for formal investigation. Over time, we build relationships with public sector bodies by finding collaborative solutions — so that when we uncover a systemic issue that does require investigation, our recommendations are likely to be accepted. We also make our voice heard in our investigative and annual reports, like the one I released just over a week ago — documenting my first full year as ombudsman and how we dealt with the 21,328 public complaints we received.
Some media and politicians criticize annual reports of public watchdogs as self-promotional. In fact, they are mandated by law. We are funded by taxpayers and our annual report not only educates and informs them of how we can be of assistance and serve the public interest, it is our accounting to the public about how we dedicate our resources and the outcomes we achieve.
For example, in our latest report you could learn that:
- The Family Responsibility Office (FRO), our top source of complaints for most of the past decade, made significant changes to improve its enforcement of family support orders, setting up an internal complaints office at the assistant deputy minister level.
- The Ministry of Transportation is working to address a serious problem our staff discovered in how it handles correspondence — hundreds of driver suspension notices it mails out are returned undelivered every week.
- All 114 recommendations we made in systemic reports since April 1, 2016 have been accepted by the province and are in the process of being implemented.
If we did not tell those stories in our annual report, many of the problems we uncovered would not see the light of day, and there would be far less motivation for the bureaucracies involved to address them. Sometimes we uncover egregious errors, like the spousal support payments that FRO garnished from a man’s pension, even though his ex-wife had been dead for years. Or the driver’s licence suspension for medical reasons that cost a man his job, even though he had no medical issues. Sometimes, the results are tangible, like the $100,000 in overdue support payments we helped a woman recover through FRO. Or the misspelled birth certificate we helped replace for a father, who had a tight deadline to get a passport for his baby son.
In my experience, most public servants want to provide the best possible service. Things usually break down in bureaucracy not because of maliciousness or ill intent, but because the rules or systems are out of date, and not flexible or responsive.
That is where we come in.
Complaints rarely come as a surprise to public sector bodies. Quite often, they are aware of the problems and want to fix them, but lack the resources or political will. Once we get involved, we work proactively with the organization and are usually able to find solutions. If we can’t, we investigate further and use our credible and effective voice — which usually leads to the will and resources materializing to correct the problem. The squeaky wheel may not always get the grease, but the one with the spotlight on it usually does.
Dubé is the Ombudsman of Ontario. His 2016-2017 Annual Report can be found here.