André Marin: “Vital Watchdog vs. Paper Tiger: What kind of ombudsman do you want to be?”

“Vital Watchdog vs. Paper Tiger: What kind of ombudsman do you want to be?”

André Marin

Ombudsman of Ontario

Closing Remarks to
Association of
Canadian College and University Ombudspersons
Halifax, Nova Scotia

May 29, 2008

  1. As we come to the end of this training session, I hope you have all learned some practical pointers on investigations and evidence-gathering techniques. By now I hope all of you have an investigation in mind that you will be able to pounce on after you leave here, so you can put everything into practice. And I hope our training has been able to convince you that the size of your office truly doesn’t matter – it’s what you do with it that counts.
  2. I want to leave you today with some thoughts about the nature of the role of the ombudsman in today’s world. On one hand, this is a great time to be an administrative watchdog, because there is a strong public desire for accountability in all of our institutions, and a lot of goodwill for people like ombudsmen, auditors general, integrity and privacy commissioners, and so on. People are hungry for accountability in their public institutions and it gives them comfort to know they have somewhere to turn.
  3. But on the other hand, there is a danger in the proliferation of offices that purport to be watchdogs but are really more like lapdogs – they sit quietly and their role is basically to be decorative and comforting to the institutions they oversee. People may or may not know they’re there, but they don’t really do anything.
  4. Well, it’s not enough just to call yourself a watchdog, and I say that as someone who does just that. At our office, we have “Ontario’s Watchdog” as part of our logo, on every publication and press release. This is not just a branding exercise. The key is, if you say you’re a watchdog, you have to act like one. Otherwise you will end up as the worst kind of bureaucratic animal – a paper tiger.
  5. I want to talk a bit about the difference between these two things, because the “paper tiger” trap is one that all too many self-professed watchdogs fall into, either because of their own complacency or because they’ve convinced themselves they just don’t have the resources to be proactive, or because somewhere along the line they’ve decided their role is to sit quietly and wait for people to discover them, rather than to get themselves noticed.
  6. This might seem like the polite and impartial thing for an ombudsman to do. But I can tell you from experience, all ombudsmen need to watch out for the predators in bureaucratic jungle. And if your office isn’t demonstrating its value by taking a robust public stance, they will get you.
  7. I learned this firsthand right after I accepted my present job as Ombudsman of Ontario three years ago. Before I even had a chance to start work, I discovered there was a move afoot within the Ontario bureaucracy to get rid of my Office – to save the government $10 million a year. This, by the way, in a province whose annual budget is more than $96 billion.
  8. At that time, the Office of the Ombudsman in Ontario was celebrating its 30th birthday. It had helped countless citizens with their problems with the provincial government over the years, but it had somehow lost its relevancy along the way. So, at a time when we should have been marking this auspicious anniversary, some in the government were hoping to give us a mass retirement party.
  9. I wasn’t keen on the idea of being unemployed and neither were my staff, so we set about the important task of putting our Office back on the map. We dramatically reorganized our resources and decided to concentrate them in ways that would do the most good for the greatest number of people. Of course we would still deal with the problems of individuals, helping them with their issues one at a time. But we would also tackle the major systemic problems within government that frustrate thousands of people day after day, year after year. This way, we could deliver lasting change for huge numbers of people – and give the taxpayers a much bigger bang for their 10 million bucks as well.
  10. The model we created is the one you all know very well by now: The Special Ombudsman Response Team, or SORT. In the past three years, we have done about 15 SORT investigations, with a few still underway as we speak. Our track record speaks for itself. All of our recommendations have been accepted by the government.
  11. In fact, the truly amazing thing about this approach is, the government’s response to most of our investigations has been very constructive. From the premier on down, there has been recognition among government leaders that our work is not about making them look bad, even though we certainly have exposed some bad things. In the end, our recommendations lead to solutions that can benefit millions of people. Government officials have come to realize that if they act on our recommendations, they are going to look good.
  12. Let’s look at just a few examples. One of our first SORT investigations was very quick and efficient, but it had a profound human impact. This was our investigation into the province’s newborn screening program. We found out Ontario was doing only two tests on newborn babies for treatable genetic diseases or disorders like cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia. These conditions can kill children or leave them permanently disabled if they aren’t treated. In Ontario, this was happening to about 50 children every year.
  13. After we revealed that the province’s testing was no better than that of some Third World countries, the government immediately promised to do better. In just about three years, it has gone from doing just two tests to 29. The premier likes to say our testing program has gone from being one of the worst in the world to one of the first. It is now a point of pride for the province, and most importantly, there are about 50 fewer children suffering and dying needlessly every year.
  14. We saw another major reaction from the government just over a month ago, as a follow-up to our report last year on Ontario’s Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. This is the agency that is supposed to help you if you are a victim of a violent crime. If your child is murdered, for example, they will give you money to help pay for the funeral. If you’ve been badly beaten up, they might help you with lost wages, or counselling. But we had victims complaining to us that this agency was such a bureaucratic mess that it was actually hurting victims rather than helping them.
  15. Our investigation found all kinds of administrative horror stories in this agency. There was a man who literally died waiting for compensation. Another man whose little girl had been raped and murdered was given the third degree over the funeral bills he submitted, as though he was a criminal himself. One man had his application forms sent back to him because he forgot to dot an “I” in his name.
  16. We determined that this was happening because one government after another had failed to fund the agency properly, resulting in a backlog of more than three years. Meanwhile, the government was actually sitting on a multi-million-dollar fund for “victim services” that wasn’t being used. When we exposed all this, the government realized it had to do something. First it doubled the agency’s budget to $20 million, and promised to change its heartless bureaucratic procedures. Now, a year later, it has just announced another $100 million to get rid of the backlog, and pay all of those crime victims the compensation they deserve.
  17. Finally, there was our investigation into the lottery scandal. I know many of you have heard of this one, because it had repercussions for every lottery corporation across the country. What you might not know is that we actually launched that investigation before we had even received a single complaint.
  18. What happened was that the media were reporting that lottery ticket retailers were winning a suspicious number of jackpots. They were apparently taking tickets away from customers, telling them they weren’t winners, and then claiming the prizes for themselves. I felt this called for an Ombudsman investigation because it was threatening the public’s trust in the entire government-run lottery system, which in Ontario brings in about $2 billion a year. If people couldn’t trust the lottery, they would stop playing, and that would mean a lot less money for things like hospitals and charities and roads.
  19. After I announced my investigation, hundreds of people came forward with complaints about suspicious conduct of lottery ticket sellers. We uncovered some serious lapses of security within the system. On top of that, we found out that the top brass of the lottery corporation knew there were problems, but were more concerned about their bottom line. So, in the end, we recommended a totally new system to regulate and control the province’s lotteries. As you may know, all of the changes we recommended have been implemented, and buying a lottery ticket in Ontario is now a very different experience. You have to sign your ticket so no one else can claim it, and you can check for yourself to see if it’s a winner at new machines that have been installed at every ticket kiosk in the province. And retailers now have to be registered and undergo background checks.
  20. These changes seemed logical to us, but they did not come easily. The head of the lottery corporation told us they couldn’t be done – that you couldn’t do background checks on ticket sellers because it might violate their rights. And you couldn’t ask people to sign their tickets. But it seemed clear to us that there was one important principle at stake, and the lottery corporation had forgotten it: When the lottery is run by the government, the lottery corporation is a public servant. All of its money is public money, for use in public works. So the corporation’s primary duty is to the public interest, not to its own profits.
  21. A lot of things changed as a result of this investigation, as you probably know. The head of the lottery corporation was fired just before our report came out, although we did not recommend that. Since then, there has been a complete turnaround in the way the corporation’s top officials have committed themselves to serving the public. Here is a quote from their final report back to me, describing how our investigation made them see the light:

    In hindsight, the ‘shock’ of the Ombudsman’s report brought about deep and systemic change within the Corporation in very short order. It is unlikely that this could have been achieved through more conventional or traditional means of organizational reform … The Ombudsman has reinforced for us that our obligation to the citizens of Ontario to preserve and protect the public interest at all times is the foundation of everything that we do.

  22. To me, that kind of comment lies at the foundation of everything that we do as ombudsmen. Sometimes we work quietly behind the scenes to help people cut through red tape, or speed up the delivery of a cheque, or perhaps a course transcript, or what have you. But as watchdogs, we should never forget that we have teeth, and they can be very powerful if we use them properly.
  23. In all of our SORT cases, the government’s response has been much more than just “Thank you for your report, Mr. Ombudsman.” It has taken action to fix the problems we highlighted – and we keep a close watch to make sure the problems don’t recur. To me, that is a good sign that you, as an ombudsman, have demonstrated the value of your office – you have helped make things better for the public, and even for the people you oversee, because you have improved the way they work, and the public will appreciate them (and you) for it.
  24. This is not something that is just measured in money. After all, governments increase spending all the time; it doesn’t necessarily improve anything. The kind of value I’m talking about comes from getting the people you oversee to buy in, not with dollars but through their actions.
  25. The reality of our work is that, academically, we are paper tigers. On paper, most ombudsmen have no power. I can’t punish anyone for wrongdoing or force anyone to accept my recommendations. My Office’s only power is that of moral suasion. To exercise that power, two things are essential: I have to be right, and I have to have the public on my side.
  26. That’s why I say you have to choose your investigations wisely – find problems that are important, but also possible to solve. Make sure your evidence supports your conclusions and your recommendations have the ring of common sense. Think outside the bureaucratic box. And for heaven’s sake, make sure your stakeholders know what you are doing.
  27. Publish your reports, and do what you need to do to get your message out. Think about ways to use the media. This is not just about self-promotion or even self-preservation. It’s the key to building the credibility of your office as an effective agent of change. You have to make sure your stakeholders – the students, the faculty and staff of the college or university, as well as the public at large – know about you and the value you represent.
  28. Some people believe that having a strong public profile runs contrary to the ombudsman traditions of impartiality and confidentiality. But I beg to differ. At our Office, we still maintain the confidentiality of our complainants, and as far as being impartial, of course we are impartial when we are gathering evidence and conducting an investigation. But once all the evidence is in, if it points to a clear solution to a systemic problem, I am not impartial about that. How could I be? Once I’ve detected a problem and proposed a solution, I am going to advocate for that solution because I believe it is right. When good watchdogs detect a breach of security, they bark.
  29. If I could leave you with just a few pointers on how to demonstrate and maintain the value of your office, I would start with, first, don’t be afraid to look within your own organization for signs of inefficiency and bad habits – the same kind of things you might be investigating and criticizing elsewhere in the university. Don’t assume that everyone already knows about you and the good work that you do. And don’t expect this job to make you popular.
  30. But don’t forget, if you choose your cases wisely and your investigations lead to constructive solutions, there’s every chance that you’ll be doing a huge favour for the people you investigate. Your work can be the catalyst for long-overdue reforms. The institution you oversee will function better because of it, and you’ll gain a boost in credibility that may in turn inspire more complainants to come to you. That’s when you’ll know you’ve really demonstrated your value as a watchdog – and you won’t have to live in the doghouse, either.
Forum of Canadian Ombudsman