The Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman is a small operation of 17 full-time staff. While the province has a population of fewer than a million people, about equal to the population of Edmonton or of Ottawa-Gatineau, the office provides a full range of government oversight services to Nova Scotians and is now looking to confirm its legal position as a government oversight body.
The core of our operation is what we call Investigations and Complaint Services (I&CS), a general oversight responsibility under the Ombudsman’s Act covering the vast majority of provincial and municipal government departments and agencies.
In comparison to other Canadian provinces and territories, our scope is broad. One exception is universities, which only two Canadian ombudsman offices currently cover. However, we do include municipal units, school boards, and Disclosure of Wrongdoing, which many offices do not.
We also function as a child ombudsman or advocate office for our province. The office discharges its duty to children in a an assertive and proactive way, with regular visits to child and youth residential and custodial facilities, extensive face to face discussions with youth in care and custody, staff, youth care workers, and same-day follow-up with administrators, usually achieving resolution.
We often describe our office as constituting three oversight bodies in one: a general avenue of complaints for all Nova Scotians; specialized services for youth and seniors; and a recently expanded mandate for complaints under a revised Public Interest Disclosure of Wrongdoing Act (PIDWA), our “whistleblower” legislation. Investigations under PIDWA are few but they are resource-intensive.
We conduct “Own Motion” investigations, where we identify trends in complaints and, on our own initiative, look for systemic causes and resolutions. We do in-depth investigations that grow out of a single complaint, when issues become more layered and complex than those in routine administrative reviews. We conduct policy reviews, usually at the behest of a government department or agency which seeks our input on policy iteration and reform. And under PIDWA we do investigations typically triggered by whistleblowers. Last year, in all categories, there were 25 such major investigations, somewhat higher than usual.
Recent examples of this in-depth work include two investigations of economic development practices of Nova Scotia’s regional development associations. Those associations – all have been dissolved in the wake of our reports – were unelected agencies set up by municipalities in search of provincial and federal funding for rural economic development projects. The first of those investigations resulted in criminal charges against a senior association official. The second triggered an independent forensic audit which our office recommended. Recently completed, the audit verified and amplified our findings, and the results have been turned over to the RCMP for further investigation.
A more recent major report from our office concerned the tragic death of a young child who had been receiving government services primarily from the province’s Child Protection Services Division of the Department of Community Services. Our report identified many aspects of the process and of the standards that applied. The three provincial departments involved have accepted all of our recommendations, and have provided an implementation plan within a month after the release of the report.
A number of trends in our service have been identified in recent years. Some of them have been nurtured and engineered by the office itself, while others reflect demographic variables, economic stresses and changing demands for government services, especially in areas such as health and seniors.
Unemployment levels and an aging population have had an inevitable impact on public services. For an oversight office such as ours, those factors have implications as our government is tasked with doing more with less. Public demand for, and sometimes frustration with, government services have tended to escalate.
We have attempted to meet those challenges in several concrete ways. We have worked closely with departments and agencies to ensure their internal avenues of complaint and appeal are intact, active and promoted, so that many complaints that could come to our office are handled at the shop-floor level. While departments and agencies generally have been very co-operative and forthcoming, last fall we encountered significant push-back from one department to prompt us to apply to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal for clarification of our jurisdictional position.
We look forward to the Court’s decision, which we feel will in itself resolve a number of issues on this front, and enable us to move forward with the same confidence and respect our office traditionally has enjoyed.