Private ombuds need teeth: Marin

"They're set up to placate, to cut off problems before they develop,"…Marin prefers government regulation…"That's why there are so few complaints. Consumers don't go forward with their cases because they don't trust the system."

The Toronto Star
July 12, 2006

Private ombuds need teeth: Marin
Ellen Roseman

Ontario's Watchdog. That slogan is the first thing you see when you get off the elevator at the office of the provincial ombudsman, André Marin.

In the 14 months he's held the job, he has breathed new life into a complaints handling service on the verge of extinction.

"We started with a bang in 1975," he says, "but we'd been under the radar screen for many years. When I was appointed, I heard that the government was contemplating shutting down the office."

A lawyer, Marin came to the job with 10 years of experience acting as ombudsman for complaints against the police and the military service.

He made a big splash with his report on the Municipal Property Assessment Corp., the bureaucracy that annually assesses 4.4 million Ontario properties valued at $1.1 trillion.

That led to a decision by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to freeze property tax assessments for the next two years.

In a later report, Losing the Waiting Game, he showed how the government took an average of eight months to approve applications for disability support — but limited retroactive payments of benefits to four months.

The government has stopped enforcing the four-month rule, but hasn't agreed to pay restitution to those caught up in it.

Marin sees his role as "humanizing government when it has become too rigid, too bureaucratic, too wooden or too insensitive to represent the people of Ontario well."

The message comes through loud and clear in his annual report, released last month, which contains case studies of people his office has helped.

Take the woman who was pursued by a collection agency 13 years after she was overpaid $1,700 under the Ontario Student Assistance Program. According to the rules, she had to prove her claim that the debt had been repaid.

The ombudsman's office said it was fanciful to think she would have kept records for that long. Even the bank's records had been destroyed after 10 years. And the delay in following up was the province's own.

The ministry of colleges and universities agreed to cancel the debt and call off the collection agency.

I wanted to hear Marin's thought about the proliferation of the private-sector ombudsman.

All the big banks have an ombudsman. Enbridge Gas Distribution has an ombudsman. Air Canada had one for a while.

How can someone be fair, objective, impartial and free of conflicts while paid by a company? When does a watchdog turn into a lapdog?

"It's an unregulated profession," he says. "Zap, you're an ombudsman."

Companies set up an office of the ombudsman to appear accountable and open. They know there's a public appetite for oversight.

But they tend to pick the wrong people for the job — either junior employees on the way up or senior employees on the way out.

The ombudsman becomes a cheerleader, trying to stay on good terms with workplace contacts.

"They're set up to placate, to cut off problems before they develop," Marin says.

"I don't want to send a message that they don't have value and they're not staffed by good people. They have value as an additional recourse for consumers.

"Just don't call them an ombudsman."

The problem with private-sector solutions: No oversight or safeguards, no guarantees of independence or impartiality.

When firms set their own rules for how an ombudsman operates, the results are wildly inconsistent. And consumers are naturally suspicious of what kind of justice they will get.
So, what's the answer?

The International Standards Organization has drafted a new standard on external dispute resolution (ISO 10003), which can help companies and industry groups monitor their own performance.

The industry-level Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments plans to adopt this standard when it's completed.

Marin prefers government regulation. In New Zealand, a private sector ombudsman has to meet criteria that are established in legislation — and can operate only after gaining the approval of the Parliamentary ombudsman.

Here's Marin's formula for a credible company ombudsman:

  • The status and salary of a senior person, such as a vice-president.
  • A fixed term in the job and the ability to report directly to the board of directors.
  • The power to conduct in-depth investigations and publish reports that are not vetted by the corporation.
  • A rule that says employees will be fired if they don't co-operate with the ombudsman.

"Don't let people act as mouthpieces for the company and call them an ombudsman," Marin says.

"That's why there are so few complaints. Consumers don't go forward with their cases because they don't trust the system."


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Risks: Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments, Canada, Fox to guard the henhouse (self-regulation), Trust, Watchdog fails to bark, War of attrition, Canada, 20060712 Private Ombuds

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