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May 16, 2011

British & Irish Ombudsman Association (BIOA)

‘Biannual BIOA conference’ 

12th & 13th May 2011

The Gibraltar Public Services Ombudsman was represented in the Biannual BIOA conference held at the Burleigh Court Conference Centre in Loughborough. As usual the annual meeting was followed by a conference which was composed of plenary and workshop sessions. Under the main theme of “Ombudsmen in a climate of change” a number of topics where considered.

The main topics at the conference this year were ‘Challenges to Decisions’ and ‘Better public accountability / Administrative Justice’. Other related topics were discussed amongst the attendees including the following:

  • Better public accountability
  • Managing Confidentiality in investigations.
  • Maintaining Objectivity in casework
  • Communications and new media
  • How to be an Ombudsman in a new climate
  • Ombudsmen: leaders or followers

It must be said that these BIOA meetings are intended in order to maintain contact and create a forum where Ombudsmen, of both theprivate and public sector, can share their experiences and acquired knowledge. This year there was the added background of budget cuts facing many Ombudsmen as well as the increase in complaints being handled by many of our UK counterparts due to the economic crisis in their countries.

The UK Parliamentary and Health Ombudsman, Ann Abraham, announced her intention to retire at the end of the year. Ann, a good friend of the Gibraltar Ombudsman, has always offered her assistance to fellow Ombudsmen and has an exemplary track record in the work that she has done at her Office. 

Challenges to Decisions / Respect for the Ombudsman

Emily O’Reilly the Ombudsman for Ireland and Ann Abraham both spoke of the need to uphold Public Bodies to account and of the need for Ombudsmen to avoid acting in a manner which watered down their respective baselines. In the context of public sector Ombudsmen, both at local and national levels, it was said that Governments should not “get cross” with decisions or findings by the Ombudsman but rather should take account of what those decisions say. 

Emphasis was made, by the speakers, on the need not to negotiate with Government / Public Bodies and not to be seen to be compromising, as such conduct, potentially undermined the essence of the Office of the Ombudsman. Where the Ombudsman encountered a rejection of their recommendations or decisions both speakers agreed that there would be a need to move to a public debate on the issues. Similarly, during the address it was highlighted that Ombudsmen should ensure that, their crucial tool, of good communication is prevalent throughout their duties; particularly where important decisions or findings are concerned.

The UK Financial Services Ombudsman addressed the audience and took the opportunity to remind everyone of certain crucial objectives. Amongst these was the importance of sharing data, the need to help departments to get better at complaints handling and she took the opportunity of reminding Ombudsmen of the fundamental requirement to properly handle their own complaints, if they arise. In keeping with the previous addresses the Financial Services Ombudsman mentioned that on some occasions Ombudsmen were required to stick their head above the parapet to fulfill their duties and argued that it was part of the role in ensuring proper accountability.

Internal Matters  

Two matters generated vigorous debate amongst the members. The first concerned the possible delay within the Ombudsmen organisations when processing complaints and the second was in relation to the point made under the slogan ‘”Don’t be Safe”. This latter point alluded to the view expressed by many that the Ombudsman had to be proactive and eager to speak out publically against maladministration.  As it was eloquently put by a guest speaker the job of Ombudsmen carries an inherent duty ‘”to speak truth to power regardless of the circumstances”.

Performance management is vital for Ombudsmen to run their offices. However, the majority of attendees agreed that it was not enough to say ‘we do a good job’. Instead everyone was encouraged to have a robust statistical turnover rate, hopefully supported by unequivocal public perception, that indeed the Ombudsman does perform a good job. It was left to be determined whether the point of good performance by the Ombudsman could be proved by high productivity rates or whether this could more adequately be proven by the standard of the quality of the findings produced by the Ombudsmen. No definite preference was announced but a majority of those attending highlighted the importance of having a high standard in the quality of the findings.

Moreover, some attendees described how they have had to react in order to guarantee a successful performance within the constraints imposed on them by the changes the faced. Primarily, their reaction has been in the form of changing internal processes and systems to be able to maintain an effective and timely turnover of decisions.

Whilst not suffering the same degree of problems as other Ombudsmen present at the conference the Gibraltar Ombudsman had, in any case, at the end of 2010 revised its procedures to ensure that it continues to be an efficient office. As it happens it became apparent from the discussion that the revised procedures in Gibraltar are not dissimilar to those now being introduced elsewhere.

Reaching out

Towards the conclusion of the conference an extremely important point was debated. There was consensus that there is an urgent need to focus on the problems affecting younger generations. It was agreed that the availability of new forms of media needed to be explored by Ombudsmen both as a means to communicate with the young people and as a means to facilitate the presentation of complaints by young people.

The impact of recommendations was also debated with a clear understanding that it is this aspect of the Ombudsman’s function which most complainants and members of the public look out for. In Gibraltar there has not been a system where the Ombudsman has recommended monetary compensation however this is standard practice in many of the other Ombudsmen schemes.

In the same context of the discussion on recommendations other Ombudsmen also spoke of the advantages of having parliamentary select committees examining their decisions and recommendations. This concept is not available in the current parliamentary system in Gibraltar but it was useful to learn how it worked elsewhere particularly because of the impact on recommendations and of the level of accountability that it imposed upon the system and to any challenges to decisions.  

The Gibraltar Public Services Ombudsman will now review the information obtained during the course of the discussions and assess what, if anything, needs to be adopted in this jurisdiction.