Ombudsman Report Shows Hope

Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé.<br>Photo by Stef and Ethan.

Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé.
Photo by Stef and Ethan.

(TORONTO, ON) – Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé cited improvements in accountability and bureaucratic leadership in several public sector bodies as a measure of how independent offices like his can make public services better.

In his third Annual Report as Ombudsman, Dubé detailed the highlights of the 21,154 complaints his office received from the public in 2017-2018, and the “positive change” sparked by its investigations.

Progress in some of the areas that generate the most complaints to the Ombudsman, including social services, correctional facilities, and local government administration, indicates the value of diligent monitoring, working with public sector officials, and “brokering human solutions to human problems,” he said.

Report Notes

  • Complaints about the Family Responsibility Office, perennially the most complained-about provincial agency with 912 cases in 2017-2018, have declined steadily in recent years, thanks to “encouraging” efforts by its leadership and the Assistant Deputy Minister to address issues flagged by Ombudsman staff to improve customer service.
  • Services for people with developmental disabilities, including adults in crisis, are improving, thanks to new funding and the implementation of recommendations from the Ombudsman’s 2016 report, Nowhere to Turn, although the office dealt with 128 new cases this year.
  • Monitoring of inmates in solitary confinement has improved in the wake of the Ombudsman’s 2017 report, Out of Oversight, Out of Mind; although complaints from individual inmates in segregation increased to 296 in 2017-2018.
  • A new mandatory training program to teach police recruits how to use de-escalation techniques before firing their guns in conflict situations is in the works, as Dubé recommended in his 2016 report A Matter of Life and Death.
  • Municipalities are steadily improving accountability mechanisms at the local level, with many appointing integrity commissioners and local ombudsmen. Meanwhile, complaints to the Ombudsman about illegal closed meetings declined to the lowest level in eight years.
  • School boards in Toronto implemented the Ombudsman’s 2017 recommendations to improve busing procedures. General complaints about school boards declined slightly to 871 after a surge last year; all were resolved without need for a formal investigation.

“It is rare that we can’t resolve an issue without formal investigation,” Dubé said in the report. “Most complaints are resolved through behind-the-scenes work, pointing people in the right direction, and suggesting best practices. Their value is borne out in improved policies and procedures on the ground.”

Dubé also noted his office’s contributions to several new laws, which, once in force, promise further improvements to police oversight, correctional services, and municipal governance. As a non-partisan, independent officer of the Legislature, the Ombudsman’s submissions on these bills were based on evidence and expertise his office has gleaned through investigating and resolving thousands of complaints.

“The enactment of new legislation is far from the end of the story,” he said. “The key to its effectiveness is in how well it administered. Only independent oversight can provide impartial evaluation of whether these new laws fulfill their promise and affect Ontarians fairly and equitably. If they do not, we will be there to address the complaints when they arise and propose constructive solutions.”

Along with numerous examples of how Ombudsman staff helped Ontarians resolve individual issues with everything from birth certificates to local utility bills, the Ombudsman’s report also notes some concerns that prompted further action.

Further Action Needed

  • The Ombudsman and staff have been visiting correctional facilities across the province, and are monitoring an increase in complaints about the use of force by correctional officers in 74 cases. Correctional facilities continue to be the top source of complaints to the Ombudsman, 5,010 in 2017-2018, reflecting both an increase and a change in how group complaints are counted.
  • The Special Ombudsman Response Team is assessing complaints related to the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation’s “self-exclusion” program for people who ask to be barred from gaming, to determine whether a systemic investigation is warranted.
  • Years of increasing complaints about the Ministry of Transportation’s system of suspending drivers’ licences for unpaid fines sparked a formal investigation, with a report to come later this fall.
  • Complaints about universities have grown steadily since the Ombudsman gained oversight of them in 2016, with 268 cases in 2017-2018. All were resolved without formal investigation, but Dubé encourages more universities, as well as colleges of applied arts and technology, to have their own ombudsmen.
  • The Ombudsman’s investigation of events at a meeting of Niagara regional council, where property was seized from a journalist and a citizen blogger, has wrapped up and a report will be issued in the coming weeks.

“I often remind the organizations we oversee that complaints are a good thing,” Dubé said in the report. “They represent feedback from the people they serve and an opportunity to do better.”

The Ombudsman’s mandate includes provincial ministries, agencies, corporations, boards, and tribunals, as well as municipalities, universities, and school boards.

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