Category: Politics

Should there be a local Ombudsman Office?

by Mario Fava – President LCA

Moving with the times is important – everything that has a beginning along time has to be renewed and everything which has a start does not necessarily has to have the same ending.  Every taken decision has to be followed through for continuity purposes.

This is what should have happened in the Local Government context way back in 2019 when Parliament was discussing the reform in Local Government.  Reforms are meant to bring on change, renewability and above all ensure that the resident benefits from such changes.

So, on the point of an improved service to the resident, I would like to forward my recommendations on something which could bring forth a complete change about how the Local Councils could be more efficient and uplevel their service.  This brings on increased confidence and trust from the residents and thus brings both parties closer together.  The Ombudsman for Local Government is a useful tool for the Local Government and such model is being used in other countries.

What is the Ombudsman role?

The primary duties of an elected and appointed Ombudsman are to investigate complaints of individuals against companies, organisations/departments and public entities. The Ombudsman is an independent and impartial official who offers his free of charge service to the citizen. Received complaints by the Ombudsman would generally be those unresolved complaints companies, entities, departments or organisations or those where the citizen would still feel he was treated unfairly. The adopted procedure for the Ombudsman to decide which case to investigate is handled by the Ombudsman himself. Like many other countries, Malta offers this service on a national level.

Why should there be a Local Ombudsman?

The Local Ombudsman has to be the institution that is in line with the same obligations on a local level, thus directly effecting the Local Councils. It has an investigative role about complaints being put forward by the public against the Local Councils and others put forward by the Local Councils against government entities and departments.

This new and independent institution has to investigate anything that has to do the with the Local Government.  We are providing residents who are neither being treated fairly nor given the chance to air their concerns the right channel to do so. On the other hand, this institution serves as the right platform for Local Councils whenever government departments and entities are not being just and treating Local Councils as Local Government

This institution is also the right space for a case to be put forward against any elected members or members within the administrative section of the Local Councils should they fail to comply with their ethical behaviour or obligations. There are situations where there is a Board of Governance which has never attracted the proper respect and trust from those who form part of the Local Government within our country. No authority which lacks teeth could ever leave a proper impact. Therefore, the Ombudsman Office has to have the role to forward its recommendations to the Minister whenever the latter has to provide an adequate reply and thus abide by these recommendations.

Undoubtedly this gives more power both to the resident and the Local Council since they both feel that there is an authority of their trust which would intervene on their behalf whenever they feel ignored.

  • The duties of the Ombudsman

For the Local Government, the Ombudsman, amongst others, must investigate allegations of wrong leadership which would have created an injustice with a resident or Local Council. A clear example that comes to mind is when there is lack of adherence to the law which stipulates that the resident has to be inclusive and informed about the Council’s business plan.

The Ombudsman has to ensure that even such services which are being offered won’t make a distinction between Regions, offered services and social inclusion

In the occurrence of such cases, the local Ombudsman has to work on doable recommendations and forward them over to the Local Government division where one has to ensure that these recommendations will be actioned in line to the ones of the Auditor General.

  • Good governance

One could drive his car from one destination to another and along the road creates various contraventions for which one could be penalized.  On the other hand, one could make the same trip with the same vehicle, abides by the traffic rules and still reaches his destination.  The outcome is that in the first scenario one would have reached his destination with a number of traffic contraventions whereas during the second scenario one would have arrived safe and sound.  This also applies in leadership; leadership could be just and transparent or it could be corrupt.

Such measure is of utmost importance since both the citizen and the Local Council would ensure an enhancement in good Governance.

Therefore, what leads to wrong administration?

Wrong administration is the result of various factors namely: excessive lengthiness for decisions to be executed, wrong actions taken or lack of action at all, poor law enforcement, lack of provided information on certain measures or decisions, lack of proper record keeping, lack of effective investigations, lack of adequate replies to what is questioned, false declarations taking place that could lead to corrupt information, wrong consultation and unactioned promises; all of these shortcomings could happen by the Local Councils, the Central Government and entities which pertain to it

In the eventuality that these occur from the Local Councils, the residents could approach the local Ombudsman whereas the Local Councils could refer to the Ombudsman should such mishaps occur from the Local Government’s side, it’s departments or entities.

We are thus ensuring that such a measure reinforces the rights of the resident and his representatives and is the model of not just good Governance but the overseeing of the rights of both the public in general and those of the Local Councils.

  • Published recommendations

The recommendations forwarded by the Ombudsman must to be published while the identity of the person putting forward the allegations must be kept anonymous should that be needed and requested. It is of public interest that there should be the details of what is being investigated, the investigation itself and the recommendations forwarded along with having in place the necessary regulatory framework to ensure that these recommendations are executed. Such reports should contribute towards bench markings of the Local Councils’ performance, entities, and government agencies.

I strongly believe that such an initiative could and will increase and consolidate interest and trust towards the duties of the Local Councils and would surely help to fade away any wrong perceptions in their regard.

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Valletta,,Malta,-,September,23,2016:,Auberge,De,Castille,Dates

Good Governance – Local Level

In 2019, 456 Councillors were elected in order to form 68 new Local Councils. This was after the population of every locality in Malta and Gozo voted to appoint their representatives on the local level.

Although we are talking about Local Councils and Councillors, they still have to work and operate responsibly. They need to realise that once they are working with the people’s money, they have to do so with good governance. What is this good governance that we hear so much about?

Good Governance

That one operates within the framework of good governance is something that comes naturally to those who work genuinely and with the best interest of those they represent. This is something obvious, no guidelines are needed for this principle to be embraced. Nonetheless, back in 2008, the Council of Europe embraced the decision of the Council of Ministers, with this decision being taken on 15th October 2007 in Valencia, Spain, where twelve principles for good governance were adopted.

In simpler words, good governance means that there must be responsibility and good conduct in matters related to the public and public management. The twelve guiding principles are:

  • Representation and Participation
  • Responsiveness
  • Efficiency
  • Transparency
  • Rule of Law
  • Ethical Conduct
  • Competence and Capacity
  • Innovation and Openness to Change
  • Sustainability and Long-Term Orientation
  • Sound Financial Management
  • Human Rights and Diversity
  • Accountability

This agreement was endorsed by all the member states of the Council of Europe, with the aim of strengthening the will to ensure that this key democratic principle is protected. Let us take a deeper look at the principles that form the basis of this value.

Representation and Participation

The first principle towards good governance is founded on the importance of free participation and an open democratic process. This is a process which must be worked on at the local level of that particular country. At this stage, citizens are the core and the centre of activity because they are directly involved in choosing their representatives. Every man and woman should make their voice heard in this democratic process and nobody should try to deny this fundamental right. This participation is based on freedom of expression. This also holds true for those who might feel less privileged or vulnerable, because in a process such as this, everyone is and should be considered as equal. In this whole process, while the will of the majority is carried out, one must also consider and respect the opinion of the minority.   

Responsiveness

With responsiveness, reference is being made to the way the elected politician has to respond, in a way where the objectives, the rules, the structures and the procedures are adopted in a legitimate manner and as expected by citizens. Excess bureaucracy or reluctance to enact reforms or strategies which are beneficial to the population should not be allowed.

This is particularly true for public service, where we must ensure that this is served and performed. Apart from this, we must also ensure that citizens’ complaints are looked into within an adequate and reasonable amount of time, and that they are given a timely response.

Efficiency

This principle ties well with the prior principle. Efficiency means that there must be results for the objectives that have been agreed upon. This materialises by using the resources available in the best way possible, be they human resources or financial. There should be clear indicators of management so that it is possible to evaluate and measure the efficiency and effectiveness of the services offered. An auditing exercise should be done on a regular basis so that assessments can be made on what can be improved in operational matters.

Transparency

Every decision that is taken must be made within the framework of the regulations and the legal framework within which we are working. We must ensure that every citizen can freely access any type of information. This access must be available whether or not it is mandatory for it to be specified within the same regulations. At the same time, data protection must be ensured as required by law, such as in a process of competition for procurement. This helps foster trust between the Council and the residents because it would be clear to everyone that the intention of the Council is to put the best interests of the citizens at the forefront.

Rule of Law

We have heard a lot about this principle in the last few months, but it is perhaps only few who have managed to explain in a simple manner what these two words mean. Rule of law means that we must have trust in and follow what the law says and what is decided by our Courts. On the other hand, we must ensure that laws are being adopted in the same way for everyone, with impartiality and equality. 

Ethical Conduct

That one behaves ethically is not listed in any law. There is what we call moral, fiscal and political ethics. The three of them carry different weight, but all three have the same importance. The common good must always come before personal interests. Ethical conduct should ensure that there are strong measures in place so as to leave no room for corruption. One must be clear when it comes to conflict of interests. These must be declared from the start and there cannot be any involvement of that person; not in the discussion of the subject, and even more so in the process of decision making.

Competence and Capacity

It is necessary that the abilities of those that have the power to act and bring about change are constantly strengthened. This is so that a superior and up-to-date service is always given. This should lead to the continued motivation of people, especially public officials, to continue improving the service they offer. Practices and methods to assess people’s ability should be maintained, resulting in capabilities that can lead to more efficient results. 

Innovation and Openness to Change

New and efficient solutions are the answer to the problems that our residents frequently present to us. It is crucial that we are innovative in the way that we provide the service asked for, and we must always be open to change. Many times, even in a Local Council, you will find administrations that, due to a certain amount of experience and due to the adoption of the same systems that have always worked well in the past, are resilient to change and the introduction of new methods. A change in the mentality of leadership is not the easiest thing, but we have to ensure that we work in an environment where we are continuously encouraging and promoting the necessary changes. Yesterday’s problems deserve yesterday’s solutions. Today’s problems require a different and more flexible approach.  

Sustainability and Long-Term Orientation

We need to ensure that in the policies we adopt we take into consideration the needs of future generations. The politics we adopt need to look to the future so that we can ensure the sustainability of the locality we reside in. The decisions we take cannot create tension or shift problems from one place to another, because we would be solving today’s problems without looking at what effect our decision will have in the long run. The decisions must be sustainable environmentally and structurally, as well as financially and economically. We need to be proactive and, in consultation with people, see what the needs for the future are. The social fabric must be protected, and most importantly, we must act in ways that guarantee that what is ours today will be enjoyed by those who will come after us. Therefore, we have to shoulder this responsibility and ensure that we act in this regard.     

Sound Financial Management

We need to remember that we are operating with public funds. Therefore, each decision taken on spending needs to be in the best interest for everyone and, above all, to achieve the best result. Changing things just to increase the value of what we’re spending on does not justify the change. Neither is acting to reduce the cost by reducing the services on offer or by offering a mediocre service. Caution should be observed at all times, especially when it comes to decisions that will leave an impact on future generations; for example, borrowing, debt etc. The risks that we take need to be calculated and approved. No spending or borrowing can exceed the income of a Local Council. Therefore, it is crucial that there is a long-term business plan and that this is updated from time to time. The same for the financial estimates of the Council. Here, the question that needs to be made is this; “If this was my money, how would I act?” 

Human Rights and Diversity

In the scope of local regulations, these rights are protected. This is not enough. As a local authority, we need to ensure that these are safeguarded and that they are implemented without any form of discrimination. Participation is necessary in order to be ready to tackle instances where this does not happen. Cultural diversity is an asset for every locality. Therefore, it is crucial that everyone has the opportunity to participate in the locality. This is especially important for those who are the most vulnerable in society. Social inclusion and integration are essential to have strong and tolerant societies. These are principles which should be protected at all times. 

Accountability

Whoever finds themselves in a position to take decisions, whether it is collective or individual, needs to act responsibly when they take these decisions. It is important that every decision taken is backed up by evidence as to why it was decided. This information must be kept so that if there are any enquiries, the information is accessible in order to ensure transparency. There should be, and they exist, ways of how one can fight against decisions that have been taken secretly. These should be transmitted clearly to make them known, and they should be available to the citizen as well as to the competent authorities. 

Conclusion

Without a doubt, if as elected councillors we keep these principles which assure good governance in mind, we will then have assurance that citizens are at the centre of our work. We will also be assured that citizens’ trust in our work will continue to grow and multiply. Participation will also grow and the public will have a sense of belonging in the locality. This sentiment will then help increase the collaboration between the Council and its citizens, and this will automatically result in fewer problems and more collaboration in the broadest sense possible.   

Article by Mario Fava – President of the Local Councils’ Association

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CoR First Vice-President Vasco Cordeiro

CoR First Vice-President Vasco Cordeiro – “The best way for the Conference on the Future of Europe to be nothing is to try to be everything. It should focus mainly on two areas: how Europe works and on what it should work. In both these two cases the role of local and regional authorities becomes insurmountable. This is true also for Europe’s recovery. It is time to fulfill the Pillar of Social Rights and also to ensure that the general escape clause will continue to apply next year. This is why also the European Committee of the Regions is calling for a golden rule for sustainable investments”.

Committee of the Regions – Plenary March 2021 https://cor.europa.eu/en/our-work/plenaries

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