Q&A: Allan Asher, Commonwealth Ombudsman, Australia

Business Standard, April 21, 2011

‘The idea is to make public servants serve the public’

While India debates whether the country needs a civil society-driven ombudsman to bring in transparency in government affairs through its draft Lokpal Bill, it has been a reality in Australia for 35 years now, says Allan Asher, the country’s Commonwealth (the term for their Union) Ombudsman.

Australia defines the ombudsman as an official, usually (but not always) appointed by the government or parliament, charged with representing the interests of the public by investigating and addressing complaints reported by citizens. In an interview on the sidelines of a two-day workshop organised by civil society organisation CUTS International, he speaks to Joe C Mathew on the importance and the role of the institution he heads. Edited excerpts:

Which areas are covered by the Australian Ombudsman?

All administrative actions, whether by police or government arms, come under our purview. We ensure administrative action is fair, just and transparent. Once that begins to happen, citizens will have greater confidence in the government and its administrative services. Australia is having it for the past 35 years and it is responsible for making public servants “service” the public. It is a simple notion and a really important link between the public and the government.

How does it typically function?

We receive approximately 35,000 complaints a year. Complaints about the tax office, over the benefits from welfare agencies and a host of other issues, including the ones relating to the defence forces. We also look for holes in the laws and try to see where amendments are needed. Right now, we are very busy looking at asylum issues. Just today, we published a report that says government agencies should be much more careful while dealing with aboriginal people. Thus, the ombudsman covers all decisions where regulators fail to take action. We recommend remedial solutions.

It has just an advisory role?

We gather complaints, analyse these and then go to the (concerned) agency and put those complaints to them. We ask them what they are going to do about it. We publish reports, too. We have the power to ask for all the documents we need. We can call witnesses. Finally, if they are not following our recommendations, we have the power to table our report in Parliament. For instance, in telecom, there are certain telephone numbers where people can register their complaints. These are supposed to be free. But if it is toll-free from a land line, it costs a fortune if called from a mobile. So, we have written to the telecom authority that they need to fix that. Free means free, otherwise it is unfair and punishing the caller.

Do you face confrontation with other regulatory agencies?

Yes, we do. We recently wrote to the police commissioner that they are using too much force against citizens; they resisted, and so that is a matter of confrontation. When we say the tax authorities are not supposed to tax so much from citizens, it is another matter of confrontation. However, we don’t seek confrontation, we seek outcomes. Sectoral regulators often assume that what they do is in public interest. It is not often true. It is the civil society that should say whether the regulator’s decision is in their interest or not.

What is the mechanism for resolution if there is a confrontation?

We use the media, we use Parliament, we convince them on the power of our argument. We have no legal powers to force the result, but if you reach a situation where you have to use legal measures, then you have failed in the very concept of an ombudsman. We have no legal powers to enforce any recommendation, but have legal powers to collect information, to publish it.

Have you faced any problem of enforcement?

Sometimes, people don’t follow our recommendations, so in that case we have to go for other ways of finding a solution.

For a smaller country like Australia, perhaps this institution is effective. But is it so for a large and diverse country like India?

It is even more important for a big country than a small country. For India, it changes the culture of civil service, which often ignores the importance of individuals. You need the power, without litigation, to change the views of the civil servants and to remind them why they are there, to serve civil society and not the other way round. Punishing civil servants for non-performance can be avoided if we can make them do the job in the first place. There are 70 countries around the world that have introduced ombudsman schemes. They are very cost-effective, close to the ground and swift. These are the benefits the legal system doesn’t have. We still need the legal system for a final appeal, but it’s better to solve most of the cases in a faster manner.

We have a Lokpal Bill which is being discussed for the formulation of a similar system. You feel it is the right move?

Yes. By doing so, we are giving voice to the voiceless, so that society functions better. Such interventions ensure all the views are there in place before any big decision is taken. Price, quality and, in places like India, access: these are the three specific areas where we can witness the change. Whether it is water, energy, food or stuff like that, civil society intervention ensures access, while regulatory monitoring may not.

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