Ombudsman institutions: A core element of democracy

By Günther Kräuter 20 November 2015

Why are ombudsman institutions an important mechanism to make actions of governments more transparent and their administration more accountable? Photo by: / CC BY-SA

The International Ombudsman Institute — the only global organization for the cooperation of more than 170 independent ombudsman institutions from over 90 countries worldwide — was established in 1978.

As a nonprofit organization, it is committed to promoting and strengthening the concept of ombudsmanship and it does so in a variety of ways: it encourages the creation of OIs where they do not exist. It promotes information exchange and shared learning through conferences and training initiatives. It supports OIs that face difficult circumstances and assists colleagues under threat. It engages in ombudsman-related topics, considers policy areas that are of specific importance to its members and issues statements with a view to improving public services worldwide.

Fostering democracy inevitably means strengthening OIs, as they represent a core element of democracy. In this regard, accountability, ombudsman under threat and the effects of privatization have become of particular relevance for the IOI and its members in the past few years.

OIs are established in most countries. As parliamentary control bodies acting on a national, regional or local level, they form an integral part of constitutional reality and are a crucial element for the sustainable functioning of democracy. OIs contribute significantly to implementing the rule of law. They are an important mechanism to make actions of governments more transparent and their administration more accountable.

The ombudsman concept has proven extraordinarily adaptable and innovative. While remaining true to its core principles of independence, impartiality and fairness and its main role of protecting people against maladministration, OIs nowadays also play an increasingly important role in the protection and promotion of human rights. In fulfilling their diverse mandate, OIs constitute an essential and necessary element in the development and maintenance of a transparent and accountable democracy.

OIs offer independent and objective consideration of complaints, aimed at correcting injustices caused as a result of maladministration. With their investigative work, they ensure that systemic failings are identified and corrected. They provide redress in an independent and objective way and make recommendations to prevent any recurrence of maladministration by public bodies.

The link between the OI and parliament is of particular importance here. It enables the OI to assist parliament in holding public administration to account and in protecting the rights of citizens. In line with best international practice, OIs must be enabled to investigate complaints brought to their attention but also to undertake investigations on their own initiative and to inform about the results of their investigations and their concerns by submitting regular reports to parliament.

It is inevitable that in the course of their investigative work, OIs will produce reports that are critical of the actions of government bodies. In a democracy, there is an expectation that such reports will be properly considered, that governments and administrative bodies will assume responsibility for their actions and decisions and that they act upon the ombudsman’s recommendation. OIs can only successfully support parliament in identifying and correcting systemic failings, if they are thoroughly heard.

Having said this, the IOI more frequently witnesses case in which colleagues come under pressure or are hindered in the independent exercise of their mandate. Pressure, intimidation and reprisals against OIs are often a result of their work and the increasing efforts they make to protect and promote human rights. In fact, they are also evidence that OIs effectively hold governments to account. OIs come under threat because they criticize government authorities. The nature of these threats varies. They encounter impediments such as restrictions of budget, staff or mandate. They struggle in times of protracted political instability, sometimes even up to the point where they experience intimidation or harassment. The reason for placing this pressure or even threats on OIs is often the same: to affect its very existence and functioning and to undermine its independence and legitimacy.

The IOI acted in a number of such cases by issuing statements of support and expressing its concern in open letters to the respective government officials. Feedback from colleagues confirmed that an IOI engagement is appreciated and perceived as helpful. The increasing number of such cases of pressure or intimidation presents the IOI with the challenge of identifying ways to effectively support colleagues while still maintaining the necessary distance to avoid interfering in national politics. In its recent annual meeting the IOI Board of Directors unanimously agreed that the IOI needs to look deeper into this matter and further research the circumstances. The board therefore approved to organize a workshop in 2016 in order to develop an IOI policy on how to support and effectively assist colleagues facing such difficult situations.

As the only global organization representing OIs worldwide, the IOI also engages in ombudsman-related topics and considers policy areas that are of specific importance. One of the core issues for the IOI is to make sure that citizens who use public services have unrestricted and free access to independent redress mechanisms. The IOI’s main issue of concern here is the tendency of privatizing public services and the fact that the responsibility for running and providing such public services is increasingly transferred to the private sector. This is a global phenomenon that silently reduces the area of competence of OIs and diminishes their investigative authority and jurisdiction. In some cases access to independent redress disappeared entirely and citizens lost their right to seek redress from an independent institution.

In a policy paper published on its website, the IOI addresses this development and takes a clear position: all public services — whether privatized or not — should remain in the OI’s jurisdiction to ensure that citizens have access to independent redress. Complexity in service provision should be counterbalanced by simplicity in accessing redress. Where access to redress via an OI has been lost, the IOI argues for it to be restored and encourages its members to speak out actively by advocating the same. This can be achieved through amending the law or through the inclusion of provisions in contracts between the state and companies who take over public services. Citizens will only have guaranteed access to independent redress if all public services remain in the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction.

It is my personal conviction, that strengthening OIs around the world is a crucial element in advancing democracy. And that is what I will continue to strive for!

Democracy Matters is a global conversation hosted by Devex, in partnership with International IDEA, to discuss accountability as a central element of deepening democracy. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #DemocracyMatters.

About the author

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Günther Kräuter

Günther Kräuter is a member of the Austrian Ombudsman Board and Secretary General of the International Ombudsman Institute. He dedicates himself to the fostering of democracy, the rule of law and the strengthening of ombudsman institutions worldwide. He obtained a doctorate in law from the University of Graz in Austria.

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