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
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?
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
How does it
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
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?
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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