The New Québec Ombudsman: Doing More with More
Notes for the Annual Symposium of Québec Government Complaint Management Supervisors
Ms. Raymonde Saint-Germain
Hôtel Québec, Sainte-Foy
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
I was delighted to accept the invitation to speak at your annual symposium. I am aware that this event is a special opportunity for the members of your group to discuss matters of concern. As Québec government complaint management supervisors, you do highly important work each day within your organizations. You need good listening skills and attention to detail. In my position, I know that fielding complaints requires a very open mind.
I would first like to thank you for giving me the chance to present the Québec Ombudsman, or should I say the “new Québec Ombudsman.” The fact that you chose me to speak shows you are interested in better understanding both the appointed person and the institution I represent. Your choice is especially timely in that this institution is currently facing a considerable challenge, perhaps the biggest since its creation in 1968.
At the risk of disappointing you, I would like to make it clear from the start that the title of my presentation, Doing More with More! has nothing to do with money. Oh no! A bigger budget will not make the Québec Ombudsman even more efficient. Rather, a broader mandate, new means of action, and the overviews it produces will enable it to cover more ground, exert more influence, and help more citizens.
Although we work at different levels using different methods, we are united by a common goal. We share the same desire to ensure that citizens’ rights are respected and meet their legitimate expectation of high quality services. To this end, we must strive to maintain—or restore, if need be—citizen confidence in the public services provided by government ministries and agencies, as well as institutions in the health and social services network. This meeting gives me an opportunity to discuss the role we can play, each at our own level, in achieving our respective mandates.
You have been managing complaints for varying lengths of time. Some of you already have solid ties with Québec Ombudsman delegates. Others are taking their first steps and have only a vague idea of the institution’s role and how it works. Many are even apprehensive about it and, let us say, fearful of the recommendations we might make or of the public nature of certain Québec Ombudsman initiatives. For this reason, I think a proper overview of the institution would be helpful.
Since April 2006, the Québec Ombudsman has also fulfilled the duties of the Health and Social Services Ombudsman. The two entities are now one and the same institution serving citizens and users. In this regard, our areas of jurisdiction converge since for the past two years your group has welcomed members of the parapublic sector, particularly from the health and social services network.
I will therefore take a few minutes to explain the mission of the “new Québec Ombudsman” and discuss its characteristics, how it works, and its means of action in a significantly broader jurisdiction. Of course, I will take time to discuss the processing of individual complaints both by the Québec Ombudsman and in your organizations. Who files complaints, where, why, and what kind of welcome do these people receive? This exercise should help us better understand the methods used and appreciate the benefits of a credible and efficient complaints office.
Building on this overview, I will lay the groundwork for future interaction between us by suggesting several possible approaches and proposing ways we can profit from each other’s experience.
THE QUÉBEC OMBUDSMAN
A demanding and crucial mission
The Québec Ombudsman must ensure that citizens are treated with respect, fairness, and equity by the government and institutions in the health and social services network. Its mission is to correct and prevent harmful situations and, ultimately, help improve the quality of services to the public. Its actions may be spurred by a complaint or report, but it may also act on its own initiative.
In the performance of its mandate, the Québec Ombudsman provides services directly to the public and conveys its opinion to parliamentarians. In this way, it corrects inequities after they happen. It also has a duty to act beforehand by providing its advice to parliamentarians on acts, policies, and regulations.
An independent and impartial public official
The Québec Ombudsman is independent from political authority. It was entrusted with the responsibilities of the Health and Social Services Ombudsman primarily so that citizens who use the health and social services network may benefit from this independent status. This point of recourse is embodied by a public official who reports only to the National Assembly.
The appointment process is initiated by the premier, who puts forward a name of a person to occupy the position. This person must then be approved by a two-thirds majority of MNAs. I was appointed in this way on April 13, 2006, for a renewable five-year term.
To further reinforce the institution’s independence, two deputy ombudsmen are appointed by the government on the Québec Ombudsperson’s sole recommendation to assist her in her duties.
At all times, the Québec Ombudsman must act with extreme caution in order to maintain its impartiality and prevent any political interference.
An institution like no other
The Québec Ombudsman is notable for the flexible and pragmatic alternatives it suggests in cases of disputed government decisions it deems unreasonable, unfair, or unjustified. It is also notable in that it makes suggestions; it does not issue orders. Its availability, simplicity, and informality—which takes nothing away from its rigor—also make this point of recourse different from others.
It devotes its energy to developing fair and reasonable solutions in order to prevent unacceptable situations from recurring. It plays a key role as an alternate recourse for complaints that would not be admissible in the courts or do not require legal treatment.
The Québec Ombudsman is not a substitute for political and administrative decision makers, nor does it check the judicial branch or replace the courts or complaints offices. Its priorities include protecting citizens against abuse, errors, rights violations, negligence, and government inaction. It is resolutely focused on improving the quality of services by using all methods at its disposal. Impartiality is first and foremost among its values and duties.
Another feature of the Québec Ombudsman is its ability to defend and move cases forward based on equity. Unlike the courts, its scope of action is not limited to the legality of the acts and decisions of the bodies under its jurisdiction. It may be called on to investigate an unreasonable, unfair, or abusive act by an organization. In assessing the situation, it may recommend a correction or remedy based on equity.
But what does this equity-based action entail? First, we should note that equity arises from “a natural sense of what is right.” It is a principle that is not in opposition to the law, but rather complements it. Consequently, the Québec Ombudsman considers the principle of equity when an act or regulation does not provide a satisfactory solution to a particular situation. In other words, equity enables it to allow an exception in order to solve a problem. However, this solution must never betray the purpose of the act or regulation in question. The Québec Ombudsman can therefore use the principle of equity to correct the excessive harshness of an act, supplement a rule, or interpret an obscure regulation. Without doubt, you also use this principle in certain circumstances because it’s the only way to do more.
Serving citizens — and society as a whole
The Québec Ombudsman can act on its own initiative and often has occasion to do so when it defends a case on behalf of all citizens or users of a service. If the Québec Ombudsman determines that a situation is harmful to a number of people, it can demand that corrective action be applied to all of them. Furthermore, it can choose to nip the problem in the bud by recommending that a ministry or agency amend a regulation, policy, or act for the benefit of society. This helps improve the quality of services in a broader sense.
Similarly, the Québec Ombudsman examines draft bills and regulations in order to identify any adverse effects on citizens. It proposes amendments to the National Assembly for any potential sources of dissatisfaction it detects.
To remedy adverse effects or prevent them, it may ask senior officials or the government to consider making certain legislative, regulatory, or administrative changes in the general public interest. Moreover, it is entirely free to issue special reports or opinions for officials regarding systemic problems.
Since its creation nearly forty years ago, the Québec Ombudsman has helped make necessary corrections in the public service, thereby improving all services to citizens. Many times, it had to demonstrate perseverance.
This was true in 1989, when the government introduced a measure reducing social assistance benefits for people who shared accommodations. The rationale for the decision was that shared accommodation provided savings. Deeming that this measure penalized a certain category of citizens who were already sufficiently disadvantaged, the Québec Ombudsman recommended the act be amended to abolish the provision. After repeated refusals, the lawmaker gradually amended the rule. In 2003, the reduction was abolished.
The case of determining support payment income also clearly illustrates how the Québec Ombudsman can help correct a situation that is harmful to citizens.
When calculating social assistance benefits, Ministère de l’Emploi et de la Solidarité sociale takes into account support payment income, even if payments are intended solely for the children. Basic benefits are reduced by the amount of the support payment.
In 1993, the Québec Ombudsman recommended the partial exemption of this income—to no avail. In 1998, it reiterated its recommendation, and this time support payment income was exempted up to a maximum of $100 for families with children age five or under. In June 2002, with the announcement of the anti-poverty act, the Québec Ombudsman raised the issue again. In her 2003 budget, the finance minister of the day announced government plans to extend this measure to all social assistance recipients receiving support payments for their children. The matter is still pending.
Faced with this issue, a step-by-step approach is probably the only solution. Although this remedy is achievable, it represents a burden for society as a whole, since the cost of a blanket exemption would be in the order of $36 million.
These two examples speak volumes regarding the scope of the Québec Ombudsman’s mission. I can assure you that I fully intend to use all justifiable means necessary to ensure the success of this mission.
A complaint is a symptom we must pay attention to
Now I would like to discuss the processing of individual complaints and reports, which are central to the Québec Ombudsman’s many initiatives. They are the very basis of its work and one of its primary means of action. I am preaching to the choir—no need for me to speak at length to convince you of the lessons we can learn from user complaints in order to improve service quality. Of course, I am talking about substantiated complaints.
Citizens who put effort, time, and energy into expressing their dissatisfaction deserve to be heard. For every person who files a complaint, how many in the same situation do nothing for lack of information, determination, ability, or hope that they will truly be heard?
Complaints at the Québec Ombudsman’s office: Doing more with more!
Why do citizens go to the Québec Ombudsman’s office instead of somewhere else?
The Québec Ombudsman is an independent point of recourse, and this gives many citizens confidence. It gets results, which is reassuring. Over the years, the Québec Ombudsman has helped correct a number of unfortunate errors affecting both individuals and society as a whole. This institution has a good reputation. Clearly, this reputation leads many citizens to its door when they want their voice to be heard.
As you know, some people contact the Québec Ombudsman because they are dissatisfied with a decision handed down by the complaints office of a government ministry or agency. To be frank, their reasons sometimes involve you. To help you improve your approach, you deserve to know what complaints of theirs we believe to be substantiated.
Citizens complain primarily of a lack of compassion or empathy, of the strict application of standards and regulations irrespective of their special situation. In certain cases, they doubt the impartiality of the complaints office. Lastly, they may be disappointed—and rightly so—that no explanation or reason was provided for a decision against them.
The Québec Ombudsman also welcomes people who believe they have been wronged by poorly harmonized programs and policies, and whose many efforts have gotten them nowhere. After suffering a difficult defeat they are, in a way, seeking a “higher authority.” These citizens especially appreciate our straightforward and user-friendly services.
Our organizations do not act at the same level. The Québec Ombudsman’s jurisdiction and area of influence give it a broader perspective of the situations it assesses. Its independence and means of action enable it to work outside individual organizations and simultaneously influence a number of ministries and agencies. This “intersectoriality” helps it identify solutions that would not have emerged with too narrow a perspective.
At the Québec Ombudsman’s office, each delegate has a duty to listen to the point of view of citizens and representatives of the organization involved. They must also seek to influence all relevant parties in order to resolve the problem submitted. To this end, delegates must draw on the institution’s impartiality, independence, and rigor.
Powerful tools used effectively
The Québec Ombudsman is backed by a multidisciplinary team of professionals and technicians with expertise and training in a variety of fields including law, nursing science, psychology, criminology, social work, and administration. Delegates are assigned to assess complaints according to their area of responsibility. I assume that most of you already know your contact at the Québec Ombudsman’s office.
Like the Québec Auditor General, the Québec Ombudsman has the powers of a board of inquiry, meaning that delegates can access all information necessary for assessing a situation. In particular, they have all the latitude they need to contact anyone who may be able to provide information relevant to their investigation. In this regard, they often seek your point of view.
Although delegates have all the powers of a board of inquiry, it should be noted that they are guided by deep respect for both parties involved in the situation they must shed light on. They must carry out their task with impartiality, avoiding a confrontational tone. Attentive listening, personal contact with a human touch, sincere empathy, and thorough analysis are the landmarks that guide their work.
The health and social services sector’s complaint management system is enshrined in law. The Québec Ombudsman is the second point of recourse, barring a few exceptions that I will get back to later. Local and regional complaints and service quality commissioners are the first line of recourse for user complaints and third party reports. These commissioners now enjoy exclusive authority and report directly to their boards of directors. The Québec Ombudsman acts as a second point of recourse, given the means at its disposal and its independence from the executive branch. It is an appropriate body for covering all possible solutions to problems raised and deemed substantiated. Consequently, the Québec Ombudsman can do more to resolve situations involving the health and social services network, Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux, and other government ministries and agencies that provide shared, complementary services.
Lastly, while it does not seek undue publicity, the Québec Ombudsman can publicly express and announce its positions in cases it deems of interest, always with respect for confidentiality (denominalization). It also has the authority to ask that managers notify it of their followup to its recommendations.
Complaints offices: the need for self-regulation
Some of you may now be wondering, “Why do organizations have a complaints office if people can go to the Québec Ombudsman?” Rest assured—your role is important, and internal complaints processing mechanisms have a purpose. This self-regulation is necessary to correct as many shortcomings as possible at the source, which is desirable. Obviously, certain problems can be resolved more easily, directly, and I would even say normally through an organization’s internal mechanisms.
However, thanks to the means at its disposal, the Québec Ombudsman has an influence that complaints offices do not necessarily enjoy in their relations with senior authorities in their organization. The Québec Ombudsman can do more because it has more.
As recipients, applicants, debtors, beneficiaries, or users, citizens come up against increasingly complicated rules within public organizations. The growth of this often distant and impersonal structure can tend to dehumanize interactions between citizens and government workers.
People may literally feel lost in the huge public service apparatus or when faced with the array of available health services. Discouraged by a sense of being treated as a mere number, citizens may feel they have been wronged. Their goal is to find a way to ensure that justice prevails. What can you do for them?
Within your organization, you can do what the Québec Ombudsman does for all government ministries and agencies, as well as institutions in the health and social services network. You have a number of tools to assist citizens who feel adrift in a large organization whose intricacies and operating logic escape them.
Make empathy and human solidarity your primary values. Each time you settle a case to the satisfaction of a user of your organization, you help solidify its reputation. Working for a “business” you are proud of is always an added bonus.
A credible and efficient complaints office
To do your job well, you should question the appropriateness of certain practices and occasionally validate the basis of your organization’s positions regarding the interpretation of acts, regulations, and administrative standards. Resolving complaints requires that you examine cases from the citizen’s point of view.
Like the Québec Ombudsman, you must present your argument to decision makers in your organization when you are convinced that the citizen’s point of view is fully or partially correct. The special nature of certain situations and the reasonableness of decisions arising from the automatic application of a standard should be assessed on merit. At your level, too, complaints should trigger reflection and action. To this end, your organization’s managers must be willing to listen to the complaints office. It is subsequently your responsibility to convince them that your work is central to improving services. Remember that if you believe this, it is likely that they will, too.
It is therefore up to you to defend your purpose by ensuring you have a real voice. Among other things, you will need easy access to all the information you need, when you need it. The ability to interact directly with and be officially recognized by the authorities will go a long way toward establishing your credibility throughout your organization. The autonomy you are afforded can also significantly increase your chances of properly meeting citizen expectations.
To be efficient, a complaints office must be solidly rooted in the organization and enjoy the credibility required to “work on mentalities” and influence organizational culture through constructive criticism. Your colleagues within the organization should see you as allies, not enemies. Your role is not to blame them, but to make them aware of problems and support them in seeking solutions.
To be credible in the eyes of citizens, your services must be known, accessible, fast, confidential, and transparent. All these conditions combined are not enough if another feature—impartiality—is lacking. In addition, and I cannot stress this enough, it is critical that the reasons for your decisions be expressed clearly and include the information needed to understand them.
To have more than a theoretical impact, you must thoroughly follow up on your recommendations. Your determination and know-how are expressed at this crucial step. Presenting a recommendation, convincing the authorities to accept it, and seeing to its implementation require an ongoing presence and vigilance. Your organization’s management team must endorse your position and approve of your action. Your persuasiveness can make all the difference.
The benefits of sharing
If good governance is our hope, citizen complaints can be our means of achieving it. Citizens who complain about government decisions are exercising a right. A credible, accessible, and efficient complaints office is often the best place to resolve problems. And when they cannot be resolved, citizens must be fully informed of other available avenues of recourse.
That is why I spoke to the managers of your organizations. I invited them to take steps to ensure that staff members who handled complaints about the Québec government automatically referred citizens to the Québec Ombudsman in the event the complainants were still unhappy with the decision. I strongly recommend including a note to this effect in your organization’s leaflets and documentation so that people know where to turn in the event of a disagreement. Our work is complementary.
To stimulate and make the most of this complementarity, I believe we must maintain strong ties and regularly discuss our work methods. To this end, I plan to organize an annual meeting with a number of managers to discuss the complaints received as well as possible solutions to better meet citizen expectations. This meeting will also be a special opportunity to talk about how the complaints office works.
In the same spirit, I asked delegates to meet with complaint management supervisors at least twice a year. In addition to promoting healthy relations, I believe these discussions will help us paint an overall picture of and learn from the problems reported to both the Québec Ombudsman and your organizations.
This openness is already apparent: In order to help move certain cases forward, Québec Ombudsman delegates occasionally meet with managers in the presence of complaint management supervisors. I know, for example, that this is common practice for Ministère de l’Emploi et de la Solidarité sociale and Ministère de la Sécurité publique for complaints regarding social assistance and correctional services.
In the same vein, complaints commissioners, Québec Ombudsman delegates, and managers of various institutions in the health and social services network meet regularly for discussion.
I am convinced that through open and constructive dialog, we can better protect citizens.
Successes and challenges
I have already mentioned that I believe we could strengthen cooperation between complaints office supervisors and Québec Ombudsman delegates. Without breaching the rules of confidentiality, I would like to illustrate this with a “real life” example.
It all began when Ministère de l’Emploi et de la Solidarité sociale received a social assistance benefit application for an individual at a psychiatric hospital. At first glance, the people tasked with examining the inquiry determined this person was eligible. Things became more complicated when the time came to collect the personal information required to complete the application. Suffering from paranoia, the individual refused to provide the information to ministry employees. Seeing that the situation was not to the beneficiary’s advantage, the information and complaints office asked a Québec Ombudsman delegate to meet with the individual in question. It turned out that the individual had fewer reservations about discussing matters with the Québec Ombudsman. The story therefore had a happy ending for the beneficiary.
While examples like this show cooperation and efficiency at their best, I cannot say that things are always easy. I will share an example of this.
By virtue of the Québec Ombudsman’s investigative powers, delegates may question ANYONE who may be able to provide the information required to process a complaint. Certain organizations try to challenge this authority, primarily by channeling communications through their complaints office. Unfortunately, this infringes on the delegate’s duty of ensuring transparency and impartiality in investigations aimed at shedding light on a situation. Some defend themselves by saying they simply wish to compile and document the complaints sent to the Québec Ombudsman regarding their organization. Complaints offices can surely develop another internal process for this purpose and, in any case, we notify you of the complaints we receive.
Open and rewarding relations
I would not want to leave you with the impression that I only have expectations. Quite the contrary, I want our relations to be as open and constructive as possible, in the interest of all parties central to the cases we process.
In this regard, I have asked the members of my team to more closely monitor how public service and health and social institutions respond to requests for corrective measures. I will also be giving more sustained attention to the recommendations I make to senior authorities in your organizations.
Further to comments we have received, the Québec Ombudsman will now automatically notify organization managers and complaint management supervisors when it closes a complaint file.
DOING MORE WITH MORE!
Since last spring, the Québec Ombudsman has been fielding complaints from health and social services network users. This expanded mandate will help it more efficiently resolve the problems experienced by citizens, who in some situations pay the price of poorly harmonized government policies and programs. These new responsibilities also enable it to do more with more and give you an opportunity to identify new solutions to the complex situations you investigate.
The Québec Ombudsman and government complaint management supervisors lend citizens an attentive ear. We share the same desire to ensure that the rights of citizens are respected and that their legitimate expectation of high quality service is met. That is why I believe that the more we understand each other’s procedures, the more we will learn from one another and the better we can serve the public.
I invite you to continue your work in a thorough, flexible, and diligent manner. I hope that you will have a free hand within your respective organizations and that officials will draw on and appreciate your professionalism. Your victories on behalf of citizens combined with those of the Québec Ombudsman will help improve the quality of services for all.
That is both our challenge and our ultimate sign of success.