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October 7, 2014

An instrument for good governance

In July, the government of Ontario reintroduced Bill 8, the Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act that, among other measures, would extend the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman of Ontario to all municipalities. André Marin, first appointed to the job in 2005 and reappointed in 2010, spoke with editor Toby Fyfe.

An ombudsman needs to be independent, flexible, accessible and credible. Which one of those do you think matters the most and why?

I think the ombudsman needs to be independent, because without independence you can’t be flexible, accessible and credible. The independence allows you to set your own priorities, triage the cases and decide on the investigative process. If you don’t have independence, you don’t have the ability to call the shots on any of those things.

I appear before committees when needed, but the government has no say in the day-to-day operations of the office right down to payroll, buying our own stuff, this kind of thing. We’re completely arm’s length from government. We’re like a small government appointed by the Legislative Assembly to keep an eye on the bigger provincial government.

In your last annual report you said the number of complaints went up 37 percent last year. Why the increase?

I think there are a couple reasons. One, we’ve tackled important systemic issues that people relate to. Right now we’re doing an investigation of Hydro One and I believe we’re around 9,000 complaints. That’s huge. For every complaint we get, there’s another ten people lurking in the background who have issues with an organization but count on others to complain. I think we’ve demonstrated our value and increased the credibility of our office so people say, “Hey, there’s somebody who can help us.”

The second reason is the profile of the office. We have a very large social media footprint. In the old days, just 10 years ago before I started, the only way the ombudsman could relate to ordinary citizens was by setting up pop-up tables in the mall on the weekend, speaking to 10 or 20 passersby and handing out pins and brochures. Now we’ve got over 25,000 followers on Twitter, we’ve got many followers on Facebook. The connection with the public through social media and the mainstream media has really allowed us to connect. So when we say we’re an ombudsman now, many more people in Ontario know what that means.

Do you think that people are simply becoming more demanding and more willing to contact an ombudsman?

We have a generation that’s much more alert to their rights. Information is much more accessible to them because of the internet. We’re capitalizing on that. You can complain from an iPhone app, you can complain with a 1-800 number. We have walk-ins, we have internet complaint forms. There are so many ways to access our office. When I started, we had a manual on how to complain, and I said, “Come on, you learn how to complain when you’re in diapers. You don’t need to tell people how to complain; you just have to make yourself more available.”

That must raise expectations as to the speed with which you will resolve complaints.

Absolutely, and that’s why we have to be very careful to set the bar at the correct level. We don’t have a backlog; 80 percent of our workload is turned over in two weeks. It’s a phenomenal production rate but it’s always a struggle with resources. We’ve had no new money so we have to work a lot smarter than we used to.

When you take a proactive approach to an issue, what are you trying to accomplish?

We’re not in the business of publishing big headline reports. I enjoy publishing them, but that’s not the main line of work. The main line of work is improving governance, improving public service. When we announce an investigation like the one we did in the prison system in Ontario, the ministry had a shadow group who would debrief on what we were looking at, what were the questions. And the next thing you know, the following week they were taking a measure to solve the problem that they thought we had identified during the interview process. So that meant my job was a lot simpler. We did report in the end but we reported on a much narrower set of issues and were able to say that these issues got solved during the investigation. That’s the best thing you can imagine because we’re causing the government to be proactive.

There’s another issue: the education of government – providing periodic updates on how they’re doing to ministries and agencies, boards and commissions. We do a lot of that proactive work. If the government body is in good shape, which largely they are, they know that we’re doing this to improve governance and public service and it works very well. Why not resolve issues early before they snowball into bigger ones that cause so much more suffering down the line?

You’ve referred to bureaucratic indifference. Do you mean that governments are so bureaucratic they can’t respond to citizens?

It’s an odd kind of situation, because there is a balance that needs to be struck. We need rules to function. And bureaucracy needs rules that are consistent, predictable and efficient. But there’s a point where government becomes too used to this security blanket. The widgets have to fit in a particular hole and if they don’t, well, too bad. And that comes at the expense of common sense and of the risk involved in running any kind of enterprise.

We’re there to remind people, especially government, that it’s easy to become a faceless bureaucracy that dehumanizes problems – there’s a rule for this and a rule for that, sorry but you can’t do this, you can’t do that. It sometimes becomes cruel decision-making because the people who handle the levers of power do not realize their administrative decisions have consequences on human beings. We want to humanize government. We want to remind government that there are people out there like you and me who feel the weight of bad decisions, or decisions that are made arbitrarily.

The Ontario government is committed to extending your mandate to include the municipal sector. You were calling for that. Why was it so important to you?

The Ontario municipal sector is really an amazing creature: there are 444 municipalities with 444 different cultures. Some of them are unaware of the laws that apply to them, like the secret meeting laws that force them to conduct business in public. It’s an incredibly unmonitored, un-overseen sector.  The city of Toronto is forced to have oversight so they have, by law, an ombudsman, an auditor general, and so on. Apart from Toronto, Ottawa has a few officers, but [otherwise] nothing exists out there. There are no ombudsmen. Municipalities are a mess in Ontario. They gather billions of dollars through municipal taxes with zero oversight. They have no oversight and the citizens of Ontario are basically mad as hell. We look forward to bringing something novel to the municipalities in Ontario and that is accountability.

You’ve been involved as an ombudsman since early 1996. What do you see as a future for the role of an ombudsman?

I can see the ombudsman moving away from the issue of complaints toward a much more sophisticated, high-level instrument of good governance. And that’s what we’re trying to do in Ontario. We’re trying to push the model instead of chasing paper on individual complaints, taking a step back and saying, “Okay, how can we make government work better? What are the main issues in government?” We will be a top-level advisor, an independent sounding board to government, whether on a proactive and formal periodic basis or as a result of reports. In short, we will be a source of information for improving governance.

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