Ombudsmen are a rather strange breed of public official –- we have very robust investigative powers, such as the ability to examine witnesses under oath and to gain entry into government premises. But we have no powers of enforcement. We cannot impose a solution or make our recommendations binding.
Nevertheless, we can recommend resolutions, not only to address individual grievances, but also to promote broad policy changes. In this way, we have the potential to positively affect thousands -– even millions –- of citizens.
Our key to success is the use of moral suasion -– persuading our governments to do the right thing. To do this, we must maintain high standards of independent investigation and speak out publicly about our findings.
When I became the sixth Ombudsman of Ontario on April 1, 2005, my office had narrowly escaped the chopping block of government cost-cutters. The office had been flying under the radar for far too long, shying away from the public eye.
I immediately set out to establish an office that would deliver big value on a small budget. We created the Special Ombudsman Response Team (SORT) to conduct systemic investigations into high-profile issues with a potential for broad public policy impact. Many of SORT’s investigations, such as probes of the Ontario lottery system and the province’s newborn screening program, have resulted in major reforms. This benefits the province as a whole –- it demonstrates to citizens that their government cares.
University of Ottawa management professor Gilles Paquet has urged ombudsmen to modernize their approach along these lines. In an article published this month in Optimum: The Journal of Public Sector Management Prof. Paquet argues that ombudsmen need to tackle the issues revealed in the complaints we investigate
with an explicit intention to unearth and expose the source of the problem, and to become the architect of better governance arrangements capable of eradicating the cause of the difficulties.
This is our inspiration for Good Governance Week –- to strive to elevate the role of ombudsman from a mere complaints department to an “architect of better governance.”