It’s been over 2 years since the Government of The Bahamas (GOBH) introduced the Ombudsman Bill, 2017 to strengthen its fight against corruption. These delays exacerbate the reality that The Bahamas already finds itself behind its regional peers in this regard, with Ombudsman Offices already established in countries like Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, Haiti, St. Lucia, Belize, and Antigua & Barbuda.
The Ombudsman Bill could change the way that maladministration and corruption are handled in The Bahamas. If you have ever experienced a frustrating process, poor service, or inappropriate conduct in dealing with government, an Ombudsman could make it safer, easier, and less expensive for every day citizens to hold government actors accountable. Imagine a system of accountability that leads to a more fair, effective, and efficient government —a Bahamas where residents don’t have to ‘tip’ a civil servant to receive satisfactory service. Ombudsman Offices provide a platform for citizen voices to be heard about issues regarding their government.
Specifically, Ombudsman legislation establishes a body to proactively address misgovernment and advocate for the people in the event of government maladministration. Simply put, “If you have ever experienced an unnecessarily frustrating process, poorly managed service, or issues of inappropriate conduct of public officers, this bill will provide a complaint-body to arbitrate on behalf of the people.”
To appreciate the need for the office, one must fully understand the role of the Ombudsman and how it can function. Former Ombudsman for Northern Ireland Tom Frawley once said, “The Ombudsman is neither a friend to the complainant nor the authority; he is a critical friend to both.” Key characteristics of the role call for independence, neutrality, confidentiality, and transparency.
The office essentially acts as a ‘watchdog’ to investigate the entire workings of administrative laws and offers redress for grievances without fear of persecution. Most people will seek oversight when they have a substantive issue or if there is an issue with government processes – mainly how they were treated by government authorities when they tried to sort out their substantive matters.
In many cases, the Ombudsman would look at any situation where an individual believes they have suffered personal injustice, hardship, or financial loss because of the action or lack of action of a particular authority.
In her presentation at the US Ombudsman Association Annual Conference in 2007, Ombudsman for Bermuda Arlene Brock described the ombudsman as a:
1. Juggler of principles, logistics, relationships, and complaint-handling;
2. Explorer of the evolving landscape of government, responsible for learning and teaching;
3. Helper in doing the right thing conscientiously and impartially;
4. Teacher toward a culture of public service.
One may argue that complaints about corruption or maladministration can be filed to the relevant government authorities or internal matters can be taken to court; however, varying facts can attribute why this may not be the easiest, safest or most effective route for citizens or public workers and thus prohibits them from making those complaints.
Frequently administrative actions do not solve the deep-rooted issues and delays that can stifle oversight processes. The role of civil servants is to implement policy and deliver public services. However, their ability to do this can be interrupted because of bureaucracy, the difficulty of doing business, and interference or influence by political leaders.
Secondly, the process of legal action can be protracted, and the amount of time, money, and effort needed to utilize this inherent right can simply be inaccessible to most. These obstacles can be another deterrent for the public.
The Ombudsman, however, would provide an independent and free service that would not only be accessible to all but, when implemented correctly, can avoid the complications and delays of going through already established internal processes.
Imagine a system of accountability that can lead to better working conditions, greater ease of doing business, and an overall increase in efficiency—a Bahamas where consumers of public service don’t have to ‘tip’ a civil servant to receive satisfactory service.
Some 140 countries have Ombudsman of general jurisdiction – which means they have the power to investigate departments, boards, and other entities across government. As a result of investigations by these countries’ Ombudsman offices, fundamental changes have been enacted.
For example, before a 2005 Ontario Ombudsman investigation, the province used to screen newborns for only two potentially fatal disorders. This screening practice was well short of most industrialized countries. It was discovered that each year, some 50 infants were dying or becoming severely disabled due to complications that could have been detected and treated soon after birth. The results of that investigation forced policymakers to require testing of all newborns for 29 inherited and potentially fatally disorders. The discovery changed the delivery of healthcare services in the province for generations to come.
Here in The Bahamas, the cost of maladministration and corruption has been discussed at length. For example, Prime Minister the Most Honorable Dr. Hubert Minis said on April 22, 2018, that The Bahamas loses anywhere from $200 million to $500 million a year to corruption. The prime minister made the revelation to members of the media after he returned from his visits to Lima, Peru, where he attended the VIII Summit of the Americas, and London, England, where he participated at the 25th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
Quoted in The Tribune, the prime minister said:
“It was pointed out by the world leaders that about five to ten per cent of a nation’s GDP is lost through corruption and in some cases it’s as high as 30 per cent. When you look at The Bahamas with a GDP of about $10bn, if we were to take the lower of the world’s figure which is five per cent, that would mean The Bahamas loses approximately $500m per annum as a result of corruption.”
If these statistics are factual, the country could save millions of dollars every year and utilize those funds for programs, initiatives, and opportunities for our people to flourish.
Along with improved accountability, if properly implemented, the Office of the Ombudsman could see the ease of doing business improve throughout the country as the public service thrives. Through the active involvement of the Ombudsman, the Public Service could be streamlined and made more convenient for citizens—it would ensure improved administrative practices and procedures. Better services across the public sector could result in increased economic growth, private and public sector revenue and an improvement in our international perception.
ORG reiterates that the benefits of establishing an Office of The Ombudsman can only be achieved with the right formula suited explicitly for the needs of the country. The Government, the private sector, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other stakeholders must find a way to work together to address these pressing concerns and see to it that these bills do not get lost in the ever-turning news cycle, only to be rehashed as another election promise.
In its current form, The Office of Ombudsman will be headed by an Ombudsman who would be appointed by the Governor-General, acting on the advice of the prime minister after consultation with the leader of the opposition.
The Office of The Ombudsman would have jurisdiction over:
- government departments,
- public authorities,
- Government boards,
- local government authorities,
- any public body established by an Act of Parliament or in any other manner by a minister
- any public body whose revenues derive directly from money provided by Parliament or a fee or charge of any other description authorized by Parliament
- Or any company registered under the Companies Act in which the Government or Government agency holds not less than forty-nine percent of the ordinary shares.
The Ombudsman would have the power to, at any time, enter any government department or
division or statutory body to inspect the premises and conduct interviews specifically relevant to
the complaint. However, before entering any premises to conduct an investigation, notice must be given to the head of the appropriate department.
The bill states, “If during the course of an investigation or thereafter the Ombudsman is of the opinion that there is evidence of any breach of duty or misconduct on the part of any officer or employee of any authority, or of an offense, he shall refer the matter to an appropriate authority for further consideration.” Investigations should be conducted in private.
In handling complaints, the Ombudsman must record the complainant’s name, address and telephone number, the subject matter of the claim and the date the claim was made.
If a person is detained/confined in an institution, he/she could inform the person in charge or someone performing duties that they wish to make a complaint to the Ombudsman. That person should take all necessary steps to facilitate the making of the complaint, including the provision of an unsealed enveloped “without delay.”
To determine whether to undertake an investigation, the Ombudsman may conduct a preliminary inquiry as he considers appropriate. The Ombudsman may decide not to investigate a complaint if:
- The complainant knew of the administrative action complained against for more than one year before the Ombudsman received the complaint.
- There is an existing law or administrative procedure that provides an adequate remedy in the circumstances, and the complainant has not utilized that remedy.
- The subject matter of the complaint was previously adjudicated.
- The complaint is “frivolous, venomous or not make in good faith.”
The Ombudsman could also stop an investigation into a complaint and decide not to go further if the complainant has abandoned, withdrawn, or settled the claim through mediation. Upon receiving a complaint, the Ombudsman could also decide that mediation would be suitable in certain situations.
In matters where an investigation would be conducted, the Ombudsman would give notice in writing to a senior officer of the authority that is the subject of the complaint, informing them of the intention to investigate and the subject of the investigation.
If there is evidence of a breach of duty or misconduct, the Ombudsman must refer the matter to an appropriate authority for consideration and can regulate investigations and proceedings in a manner as he sees fit.
If there is evidence of maladministration, the Ombudsman will report his decision to the authority and the complainant and make recommendations as he sees fit.
However, if the Ombudsman determines that there is no evidence of maladministration, he shall notify the complainant and authority in writing, not more than a year after the conclusion, explaining his decision and reasoning.
The legislation also demands that the authority notify the Ombudsman of steps taken after receipt of recommendations and outlines course of action taken and redress for stalled movement on matters.