Skip to main content

Why independence matters for a democracy...and what the heck is an ombudsperson?!?

Remember this definition of accountability, from a previous post:

"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?

This is the intended role of the ombudsperson (previously ombudsman). This office is an independent agent that has the power to investigate and examine the activities of public officials and bodies. An ombudsperson is intended to represent the interests of the public, those served by public bodies, and make determinations about whether their actions are aligned with policy and legislation, to examine possible violations of the public interest, and to mediate or make recommendations where appropriate. The power of this office comes from it's independence, and recognition by everyone (government officials included), that it's investigations are legitimate - and that independence is paramount.

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:
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? 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who gets to decide when it comes to Community Amenity Contributions?

This week we're approaching candidates in the upcoming Vancouver municipal election to get their feedback on the city's approach to Community Amenity Contributions (CACs). The Evoke team undertook a case study and research project in this area, and believes these could be better approached. Candidate responses will be posted on this site, meanwhile, here's some background on our perspective. 
The City of Vancouver has a Community Amenity Contribution (CAC) policy, officially established in 2004 with their Financing Growth strategy, where all new development and rezoning applications contribute, financially or in-kind, to community amenities. The CACs are extracted from new development and spent upon Council approval in a number of valuable areas such as: affordable housing, child care, amenities, green spaces, community infrastructure and other public goods.
Our research focuses on a key dimension related to CACs; although they are derived from value created within a neighb…

Collaborative Governance in Action

Government: one participant amongst many

In a previous post we highlighted the need to go beyond voting for robust democratic participation. But if that's the case then the question becomes - how? Where do we create places for collaboration, discussion, and dialogue surrounding key issues facing our communities?

One possibility is to set up opportunities for collaborative governance. Now remember, governance is distinct from government; governance refers to decision-making practices and structures, and alsothe broader systems in which decisions about our communities are made. A government is a specific entity endowed with decision-making authority over something.

Collaborative governance simply refers to decision-making where multiple different organizations are involved. In these forums, governments are one of the participants amongst many, as opposed to being the sole arbiter over final decisions. Decision-making takes place between both state and non-state entities, and authori…

Does an efficient public service destroy community accountability?

New Public Management is an approach to running public service organizations (government services), and civil service generally, focused on service delivery that is efficient, business-like, and that incorporates market based principles. It includes management techniques and practices drawn from the private sector, allowing public servants to contract out services through competitive contracting, and focused on the professionalized delivery of public services.

The problem is...this approach may result in a loss to democratic accountability.

In a previous post we outlined two key dimensions to accountability; 1) understanding and monitoring decisions that are made, and 2) access to trustworthy information. Public administration, and the notion of public service, was traditionally focused on accountability to constituents via centralized control, and reporting to, defined government ministries and departments. This model is far from perfect; centralized bureaucracies are problematic in …