When the Alberta Ombudsman began operations 50 years ago this week, the province and its government operated much differently than it does today.
Out of necessity, the Alberta Ombudsman’s approach to complaint handling has required adjustment. When first conceived, the Ombudsman was primarily seen as an agent who would help citizens negotiate their way through the maze of government services. The office explained how the bureaucracy worked, offered a non-partisan examination of the facts, and reviewed complaints with the goal of remedying unfairness. Through the Ombudsman’s intervention, many Albertans receive services and benefits they might otherwise be denied.
“This remains a primary goal of the Ombudsman,” according to Marianne Ryan who has recently been appointed as Alberta’s ninth Ombudsman. “However, the Ombudsman now takes a broader view of problems beyond the individual complaint, and works to improve how government services are delivered at the structural level.”
Over the past 50 years, the Ombudsman has driven systemic change by addressing not only the individual complainant’s issue, but by recommending changes to improve a public agency’s processes, helping improve government performance and avoid future complaints.
Examples of some systemic recommendations the Ombudsman has made are:
- Public authorities should always provide adequate reasons for a decision;
- All appeal panels, and quasi-judicial bodies, should protect the participation rights of complainants ensuring they have access to documents and policies that affect their case;
- Government departments should consistently apply their policies when reviewing benefit applications; and
- How a program makes decisions should always be clearly communicated to Albertans.
The courts have been another agency of change. The Ombudsman has kept abreast of changing jurisprudence and developed a summary of fairness principles based on key legal decisions in the Administrative Fairness Guidebook.
On top of the evolution of the original mandate of the office, the Ombudsman has been assigned new responsibilities over the years. Perhaps the change with the most impact to date has been the responsibility to investigate the complaint handling processes of professional organizations including: accountants; veterinarians; foresters; and the majority of the health profession colleges and associations.
What is expected to be the greatest addition to the Ombudsman’s responsibilities is just on the horizon. Sometime in the next year the provincial government will assign the Ombudsman the task of investigating complaints about municipalities, which includes cities, towns, villages, counties, municipal districts and summer villages.
In spite of this evolution of the office over the past 50 years, the Ombudsman remains an effective tool to ensure fairness for Alberta citizens and to promote fair practices in the public service.