"the relationship between the local population and their representatives, and the mechanisms through which citizens can ensure that decision-makers are answerable for decisions made."
- from the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance
In British Columbia (Canada) there are over 2800 local and public authorities, not including actual government offices or departments. Sufficed to say, that's a lot of decision makers. How are citizens supposed to make sure decision-makers are answerable?
Why? Think about some other current issues/areas where we have allowed authorities to self-regulate, thereby losing the independence that comes from something like an ombudsperson:
- The financial industry - going back to the collapse in 2008 - and ongoing, such as this case where a company was overvalued, then experienced a collapse, despite external audits and a review by the Financial Reporting Council. The key problem? The Board of the Reporting Council are former, or even current, industry leaders and auditors themselves.
- The flawed regulation of casinos in British Columbia, contributing to money laundering
- The increasing perception that self-regulation by social media providers is completely ineffective
In stark contrast to these examples, the BC Ombudsperson recently found that 3700 people were incorrectly denied welfare assistance, in direct contravention of the law. In response, the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction changed their policy and adjusted their decision-making practices to align with the law. They adopted all the recommendations made by the BC Ombudsperson. Further, the investigation by this office occurred because of a complaint.
Taken together, these examples reinforce just how important it is to have an independent body or office with the power to investigate and review the activities of decision-making bodies on behalf of the public. Without some mechanism for independent review, even well intentioned public authorities can betray the public trust. This doesn't always occur through an ombudsperson, but for the plethora of public authorities that exist in most jurisdictions, this is the first vehicle to use when it comes to accountability.
What services do you receive and access, that merit independent oversight and review? Do you know which body or agent you can contact to ensure decision-makers are answerable? Is it an ombudsperson, or some other body or individual?