The Parliamentary Ombudsman
The Ombudsman has been with us for 20 years and, true to the mission statement, it has contributed towards the fostering of a public service culture based on fairness, dedication, commitment, openness and accountability.
These principles were advocated by the Nationalist Party when it originally proposed the establishment of the office of the ombudsman in the early 1980s. Those same principles are still called upon today, every time the Nationalist Party decries the lack of good governance shown by the present Labour Government – a government whose blatant disregard for such principles is exposed through its handling of the numerous scandals in which it has become embroiled. So it is in times like these that the office of the Ombudsman gains even greater significance and, hopefully, higher visibility.
A trusted institution
There is no doubt that, over the years, the Ombudsman has earned a high degree of trust and regard from the public – a degree to which other institutions can only aspire – which is confirmed by recent surveys. This should only convince and encourage Parliament to further empower this office by building on its success but, unfortunately, it seems that the government does not subscribe to this inclination.
Every year the office of the Ombudsman issues an Ombudsplan which reflects the achievements and challenges whilst outlining the primary objectives for the following year. This year’s Ombudsplan makes some interesting observations that merit serious discussion, namely the ways in which public investigations are hindered by the public administration, the state’s duty to inform, the need to regulate lobbying and the strengthening of the Ombudsman as an effective institution.
Four promotions in four weeks
In the aftermath of the 2013 general election, heads started to roll. The top brass of the public sector was replaced in a matter of weeks. A wealth of experience and loyalty was lost in the process and the new appointments threw meritocracy to the dogs.
The Armed Forces of Malta awarded promotions that were, to say the least, dubious. A major was notoriously promoted four times in four weeks to reach the rank of brigadier, the number one position in the AFM. The controversial promotions soon reached the Ombudsman for his investigation. But – wonder of wonders – objection to the investigations came not only from the public administration officials but also from the government minister.
The Ombudsman, who was supposedly defending the citizen’s rights, was brought to a situation where he first had to defend his own rights. He had no alternative but to institute a court case against the government which, in itself, was a first. Both the first court and the court of appeals confirmed the Ombudsman’s authority to investigate complaints by AFM officers about promotions, salaries, pension rights and other matters.
Three weeks later and the Ombudsman is still waiting for access to the files in order to carry out an investigation that is long overdue. The government’s reluctance to cooperate with the Ombudsman shows, once again, its true credentials when it comes to good governance.
A privatisation process that denies citizens’ rights
The Ombudsman also warned that the privatisation of essential services will deny citizens the right to file complaints and seek redress from the Ombudsman’s office when aggrieved, because the Ombudsman’s remit ceases once the government no longer holds a majority shareholding in a public entity.
The Ombudsman is now warning that citizens might also lose their right to complain about health and energy issues due to their privatisation. Government Ministers have objected to such an assertion, claiming that other regulatory bodies will protect the citizen in such cases. However, the recent failure of the Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority to defend both the customer and the owner of a Rabat petrol station owner, when the latter was forced to reverse a decision to reduce the price at which he was selling petrol, goes to show that the Ombudsman’s role may still be required even in such cases. As the Ombudsman told the Parliamentary Committee, the service he offers the citizen is of a different nature from other entities.
Strengthening the institution of the Ombudsman
The Ombudsman has also presented recommendations intended to strengthen the institution, including one regarding the choice of the person to serve as Ombudsman. However, if one stops for a moment to compare the reaction to the recent appointment of the new Ombudsman with the recent appointments of new members of the Judiciary, one soon realises that only the Ombudsman received wide popular approval. The strength and immediate acceptance of this appointment is due to the fact that the person chosen person to serve as Ombudsman requires a two-thirds parliamentary majority. This in itself requires a meticulous choice of person and a wide parliamentary consensus which, in turn, generate the much-needed trust.
So instead of simply strengthening this institution we should, as suggested by the Leader of the Opposition, use this model to regenerate lost trust in many other public institutions and public officials.