Category Published Date
Democracy 25 January 2017

THE recent decision to reduce the powers of the federal ombudsman is a disturbing development. The government has prepared a bill with amendments to the legislation that created the office of the ombudsman. Under these, the federal ombudsman will be unable to set up regional offices, or allow the existing mechanism to fill a temporary vacancy should one arise. The bill effectively takes the powers of the federal ombudsman in the opposite direction from where they need to go. To today’s jaded and cynical public, the presence of a grievance officer in every government department might sound like a small step towards improving governance. But considering the volume of complaints that these officers get each day, the need for such a mechanism should be obvious. Just last year, for example, the ombudsman saw 94,000 complaints, which is an average of more than 310 per day excluding Sundays. At any time, the waiting room at the ombudsman’s office is filled with ordinary citizens with complaints about some government department or the other; eg whether a public-sector hospital or a power utility engaged in overbilling. Hearings are usually set up within a month of a complaint being filed. The hearings themselves usually don’t last for more than 20 minutes. How often does the beleaguered citizenry of this country get a chance to air a specific complaint against a government department with the opportunity to present its case before an officer from that department, with a finding arrived at and specific directions given in less than an hour? Such a mechanism is badly needed, and instead of looking for ways to curtail it, the government should be searching for methods to expand its reach and powers. There is a dire need for alternate dispute resolution mechanisms in this country. The caseload before the courts is already too large, and many of the complaints that are brought before the ombudsman need not turn into a legal dispute. Such a mechanism should be introduced in the rural areas too, and extended down to the district and union council level. Additionally, there is the office of the banking ombudsman that badly needs some vitality injected into it so that it can make a more conscious effort to look out for the interest of consumers, particularly with the rollout of plans for greater financial inclusion. Grievance officers play an essential part in ensuring that governance remains on track and focused on delivering for the common man. It is understandable that some government officers or political leaders will see this function as a nuisance, but that opinion is irrelevant. Keeping their minds focused on delivering for the common citizenry is the task at hand. The government should draft a different bill for the ombudsman’s office, one that seeks to expand its reach and powers rather than curtailing them.

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