Andre Marin: “Where it All Begins”

“Where it All Begins”

Welcome address by

André Marin

Ombudsman of Ontario

and FCO President

Forum of Canadian Ombudsman
Complaint Intake Training Course
“Challenges, Ideas and Techniques”
Toronto, January 28, 2008

  1. Good morning. It’s great to have everyone here in Toronto for our first FCO training event of the year. These are the kinds of events that demonstrate the value of this organization. It’s a great chance to share skills and raise the level of service we offer in all kinds of ombudsman offices across the country.
  2. I’m especially glad to have the chance to speak to you at this workshop, because it’s about complaint intake. This is where it all begins. Complaint intake is our bread and butter. Whether your office has five people or a hundred and five people, the one thing we all have in common is that people come to us with complaints, and our front-line response is key to our success.
  3. If our complaint intake process and personnel aren’t effective, we aren’t effective. If they fail, we fail. If the person at the end of the complaints line doesn’t offer competent, compassionate and professional service, then there’s really no point in having an ombudsman, is there?
  4. Let’s face it – a lot of people out there don’t understand exactly what an ombudsman is or what we do. But everyone knows what good customer service is, and they know bad customer service when they experience it. And most of the people who come to us have had terrible experiences – that’s why they’re complaining.
  5. Most people who come to an ombudsman have been through the mill – they’ve been treated badly and have done just about everything they can think of to have their problem addressed. They may be emotional, they may be defensive or even offensive, and they’ve probably had it up to here with bureaucracy. The last thing they need, when they make that call of last resort to the ombudsman, is to run into one more officious-sounding clerk who doesn’t care about them.
  6. Someone once described the role of ombudsman for me in very colourful terms – some of you may have heard this before: An ombudsman is a barometer, a horsefly, an oilcan and a safety valve. That might sound a bit bizarre, but think about it for a few minutes and you’ll how see the analogy fits most of us: We act as a barometer that forecasts storms that may blow over the public from high places in government or the business world; we are a horsefly that buzzes and bites at the slow-moving beast of bureaucracy; we are an oilcan that helps fix big organizations when they get rusty and creaky – and we’re a safety valve for pent-up public dissatisfaction with state and corporate juggernauts.
  7. But if an ombudsman can be all those things, the intake staff for an ombudsman are called upon to be even more. In the eyes of a desperate complainant, an intake officer can be a sounding board, a lifeline, a sympathetic ear and a miracle worker. For some complainants they’re a welcome mat; for others, a punching bag – to get out all their previous frustrations. They need the skills of a traffic cop, counsellor, advocate, BS detector, diagnostician and analyst, all rolled into one.
  8. In our office, our staff have become experts in cutting through red tape and guiding people through bureaucratic mazes. They have a keen eye for the affliction that I like to call “rulitis” – a slavish adherence to rules and regulations that goes beyond common sense and sometimes beyond common decency.
  9. But “rulitis” isn’t a disease confined to government. It’s something that can creep into any organization, including our own. So in addition to being able to diagnose “rulitis” and other ailments in the organizations we oversee, we and our staff have to walk the talk. We have to be sure that the same bad customer service and inefficiencies we criticize in others never takes root in our own offices. To put it another way, if we throw stones at other organizations, we’d better be sure we’re not living in a glass house ourselves. It should be a transparent house, by all means – but good practices, starting with good intake procedures, will help make it bulletproof.
  10. Those of you who are familiar with our office will know that we have worked hard in the past few years to make it a model of efficiency and effectiveness, and huge credit for that goes to our intake staff. As you may have heard, just before I was appointed to this job in 2005, there was actually a movement afoot within the provincial government to eliminate the Ontario Ombudsman’s office, to save $10 million a year. I wasn’t keen on the idea of being unemployed, and neither were our staff, so we reorganized our office to focus on the fundamentals – service and results. Our investigations since then have helped millions of Ontarians, so I think it’s fair to say it worked, and I’m glad that several of our people are here this week to share some of our strategies with you.
  11. I was pleased to see this course is called “Challenges, Ideas and Techniques.” If I could offer one small piece of advice, it would be to always make sure the emphasis is on the “Ideas” part of that picture. Good ideas and innovative thinking will help you develop smart, flexible techniques that will get you through any challenge that arises.
  12. Our intake people demonstrate this every day by coming up with innovative solutions to some of the thorniest problems the Ontario government can throw at them.
  13. Just a month ago, we had a call from a woman in a tragic situation. She was on welfare, she had two severely disabled children and her husband was dying of cancer. By asking just a few questions, our intake officer figured out that this family had fallen through the cracks of four or five different agencies that should have been helping them.
  14. When the woman first called, she was receiving only $20 a month in aid for her disabled kids and another provincial agency was clawing back half of her husband’s unemployment benefits because of an old debt.
  15. Less than a month after our intake person got involved, here’s the happy result: The family is getting $2,400 in benefits for the kids, the husband is getting disability benefits, the debt has been waived, and the Ontario Disability Support Program is paying the mother $1,400. That’s a huge difference for a family in dire straits, and in just a couple of weeks.
  16. In another case this past fall, one of our Early Resolution Officers got a call from a woman who had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, which forced her to come back to Ontario after working as a missionary in Ecuador for 20 years. She said she was told she had been away too long and had lost her right to free health care. And it would take 8-10 weeks for OHIP to decide whether it would even allow her to apply for coverage again. Our intake officer took the initiative and pointed out that this was a life-and-death situation. As a result, OHIP not only agreed to reinstate the woman’s health coverage after the standard three-month waiting period – it set up a new system of triage for urgent cases. The system got a much-needed injection of common sense – and all it took was a couple of phone calls.
  17. As you know, I publish reports each year on maybe five or six major investigations. These have resulted in huge changes for the people of Ontario and they get a lot of headlines and attention for our office. We’re proud of this important work, but we never lose sight of the fact that our intake officers make a difference every day in hundreds of individuals’ lives. Some of the best things ever written about our office have been in the form of thank-you letters from the people our staff have helped. And those people are always especially grateful that someone finally listened to their problems and treated them like human beings.
  18. The very first Ombudsman of Ontario, Arthur Maloney, described his role as “the watchdog for the little person.” Well, if the Ombudsman is the watchdog, then the intake person is the seeing-eye dog, guiding complainants through the blind alleys of bureaucracy. We’d all be lost without them.
  19. With that, I’ll leave it to the intake experts to take it from here. Enjoy the workshops and I’ll see many of you later today at our office. Thank you.
Forum of Canadian Ombudsman-FR