Ombudsman's speech to staff of the Oireachtas, 6 February 2015

I was very glad to be invited here today and glad to have the opportunity to speak with you.  I was particularly intrigued by the title, Service delivery – an external perspective on Public Service Delivery in Ireland.

As you know, I spent much of my career working abroad, so my perspective is a dual one, as an Irish native but with extensive experience of the public service elsewhere, in my case, particularly that of Wales.  I was lucky to work there through the process of devolution, and to watch the development of the Welsh Assembly, their Parliamentary body and to work closely with the staff supporting it and I also intend to say a little about that.

First, a little about the Ombudsman.  We think of Volvos and flat pack furniture as Sweden’s most successful exports, but the Ombudsman must surely give them a run for their money.  The International Ombudsman Institute currently has 177 members in more than 100 countries worldwide.  Most of the members are Parliamentary Ombudsmen and almost all deal with complaints about public services.

The role of the Ombudsman was first developed when the monarchy was restored in Sweden more than 200 years ago.  It was designed to offer assurances to citizens that their rights would be protected and that there would be no return to autocratic rule.  The Swedish Ombudsman has more extensive powers than many others, with full oversight of most public bodies including the courts.  Although they do deal with complaints, they have an extensive supervisory role also.

The Danish Ombudsman, whose post was created in 1955, is the model which first introduced the kind of Ombudsman service we have in Ireland.  This model is usually referred to as a Parliamentary Ombudsman, recognising the close links between the Ombudsman and the Parliament, as is the case in Ireland.  Ombudsmen are typically appointed following a vote in the Parliament and provide it with an annual report, as well as having opportunities to report back otherwise, often via a committee, especially on those thankfully rare occasions when their recommendations are rejected by a public body.

The different patterns of public service provision across the world are striking.  You see very different balances being struck between private and public sector, direct state provision and contracted services, national, regional and local Government, differing roles for NGOs and wide variations in the use of quangos.  This variation is reflected in the provision of Ombudsmen. 

As I’ve said the modern Ombudsman concept originates in Scandinavia, where it has been usual for the state to provide many services publicly.  Thus the jurisdiction of the national, public services ombudsmen has been very comprehensive. 

In other traditions, the role of the state is much smaller with many more services being delivered privately.  It is instructive to consider that some countries which do not have the same tradition of state funded or delivered public services do not have public service ombudsmen at the national level.  The USA is a good example of this.  There is no ombudsman with a comprehensive remit at the federal level although there are state ombudsmen in some states and some specialist ombudsman services. 

What is, or is not, a public service is not easy to define.  Take the example of healthcare.  In some countries, this is provided by the state.  In others, it is overseen by the state through regulation and the provision of a safety net.  In many instances, it falls outside of the jurisdiction of national ombudsmen while in others, it is the principal source of complaints.

The picture regarding what is, and what is not, a public service is not a static one either.  In the UK, for example, many former public services have been privatised including most utilities – telecommunications, water, gas, electricity - and public transport. A large proportion of public housing has been sold to its tenants or transferred to housing associations. Parts of the formerly nationalised health service have been outsourced. In England, where most schools were previously provided by local councils, many schools have become independent trusts while still retaining state funding. The financial crisis and EU competition requirements have seen the acceleration of privatisation across Europe, and similar patterns have been seen elsewhere.

Where services are provided by the state, access to redress is usually straightforward.  Public Services Ombudsmen across the world tend to have almost all publicly provided or commissioned services within their remits.  But when services are privatised or outsourced, access to the Ombudsman can be lost.  I have highlighted this issue in respect of Irish Water, for example.

Comparing the provision of public services in Ireland and Wales you see marked similarities, but also significant differences.  In Wales, healthcare is provided free of charge by the Welsh Government.  There is no charge for visiting your GP or for your prescriptions.  Even parking charges at most hospitals have been abolished.  Consequently the many complaints to my Office about Medical Cards, the Long Term Illness scheme, Nursing Home charges and so on do not feature at all in the work of the Welsh Ombudsman.

Unsurprisingly though, the issues on the delivery of healthcare are very similar.  Ambulances not complying with target times, overcrowding at A&E, delays in seeing consultants, too many small hospitals which are not able to meet modern standards, the challenges of providing healthcare for an aging population, not enough provision for people needing support when they are ready to leave hospital and so on.  It seems to be the case that such problems are common in many countries regardless of how healthcare is delivered.

One of the most striking contrasts between the two countries is the range of healthcare providers.  In Wales, there are 7 health authorities who run all of the public hospitals and fund all of the GPs and community based services.  There are few private hospitals.  There is much more support for people in their own homes, often at greater expense than can be contemplated here.

Social Care is separate to healthcare and run by local authorities.  There is a charge, and it is means based.  Most social care is provided by voluntary bodies or private companies.  Large scale residential provision for people with intellectual disabilities is largely absent.  The hospitals and hostels were closed and people are supported in local communities.

There are 22 local authorities in Wales, which is likely to reduce to 12 in the near future.  They struggle to provide critical mass in key services such as child protection, so the reduction in numbers is inevitable.  Keeping social care separate from health means that they moved earlier to a social model of disability, but there are disagreements with health about delayed discharge from hospital.

One of the greatest contrasts I have seen as an Ombudsman is the relatively few complaints about care and treatment in hospitals I see in Ireland.  I have launched a major investigation into this and hope to publish soon.  There is no single reason, but the culture of complaining seems to be different, with the Irish slower to do so, at least south of the Border, and a real fear of reprisal.

School-age education is also provided by local authorities in Wales.  Most schools are owned and run by councils, although there are also religious schools which they fund.  There are few fee paying private schools. There are very big differences in the education system, but it is difficult to say that either is conclusively better.  On the whole, though, the Irish system tends to fare better in international comparisons.

University funding is much as here.  Welsh students pay fees of up to £3,000 pa with the Government paying the balance.  Students can obtain loans to cover the fees which are repayable when they are earning above a set threshold.  Education is not in the jurisdiction of the Welsh Ombudsman, although it is in mine.  I cannot set aside exam results, however, to the disappointment of some complainants, but if there is evidence of maladministration, I can ask for them to be reviewed.

Matters of taxation and benefits are similar in both countries in being centrally administered with statutory appeals mechanisms.  Complainants to the Ombudsman in either case must usually exhaust these mechanisms.

Local taxation, however, tends to be higher in Wales.  Typically, it can be over £2000 a year, but there is no separate charge for refuse collection.  As local government provides social care and education, the total raised through local taxation falls a long way short of expenditure, so most council funding is Government provided.

It might be interesting to compare water services.  These were privatised in the UK and Welsh Water, a not for profit company, provides these services in Wales.  As was the case in Ireland, they were formerly provided by local councils.  There has been a major improvement in water supply and water quality.  Boil water notices are unknown and bathing water quality has improved hugely because of major upgrades to sewage treatment.  All of this is paid for through water charges.  The state does not subsidise water services.  The cost to the consumer, however, is higher.  Most people have a fixed charge, rather than a meter.  In Wales, it can cost more than £60 per month.

In general, local taxation is higher, but central taxation is lower, as is VAT, alcohol duty and car taxation.  Most people would find the tax burden lower than in Ireland, but with free healthcare and other services of a generally comparable standard.  Benefits and pensions here have tended to be higher, as was public service pay, but, as most of you know all too well, the difference has shrunk if not vanished.

The improvement in infrastructure in Ireland during the boom has stood us in good stead.  The motorway network, trains, Luas and so on have put us in a good place for a small country.

E-government, on the other hand, seems less well developed in Ireland.  Some things like taxing a car are far less streamlined than elsewhere.  There is a more consistent branding in the UK with the UK.gov domain, and they have put a particular emphasis on ensuring that more business is done on-line, with consequent efficiencies.  As people do more of their banking, shopping and other commercial business on-line, many are happy, or even prefer, to do business in this way.  An example of e-government in my own business, dealing with complaints, shows what joining up can achieve.  The Korean Ombudsman runs a pan-public service complaints portal and complaint handling system called e-people.  Every public service provider uses it to handle complaints and petitions.  If people aren’t happy with the way their complaint has been handled by the service provider, they can ask the Ombudsman to look at it at the click of a mouse.  There is a call centre as well as the on-line portal, but there are no paper forms.  The whole public service complaints process is paper-free.  The Ombudsman can generate statistics about complaint handling, subjects and bodies at any time and can be alerted about excessive delays by public bodies automatically, to enable his office to chase a response without having to be approached by a complainant.  I’d very much like to see a system of this kind introduced here.

In summary, public services in Ireland are better in some respects, and worse in others than international comparators.  We do not have the very high levels of investment of the Scandinavian countries, for example, but compare well with other similar countries.  We have a great diversity of providers, which can cause concerns about consistency, but this does potentially offer greater choice.  We have modernised to a great extent, but have scope to go further.  My own experience suggests we can be a little bureaucratic, compared to some.

I will turn briefly now to a comparison between the Oireachtas and the Welsh Assembly.  When the Welsh Assembly was put in place in 1999, it did not initially have law making powers.  It has responsibility for matters devolved to Wales including, health, education, housing and local government.  It has 60 members, and is unicameral.  It did not acquire full law-making powers until after a referendum in 2011, but had some limited powers from 2006.  Initially, therefore, its principal role was to scrutinise the Welsh Government.  Since taking on full law making powers, it is evident, though not to any members of the public (!), that there are not enough elected members to properly scrutinise new legislation while also holding the Government to account.

One important feature of the National Assembly until 2007 was that there was no legal or constitutional separation of the legislative and executive functions, since it was a single corporate entity. Compared with other parliamentary systems, and arrangements for devolution in other countries of the UK, this was unusual. In practice, however, there was separation of functions, and the terms "Assembly" and "Assembly Parliamentary Service" came into use to distinguish between the two arms. The Government of Wales Act 2006 regularised the separation when it came into effect following the 2007 Assembly Election.

The Assembly Commission is separate from the Government, and has its own budget which is agreed by the Assembly.  It is not put forward by the Government.  The staff report to a Chief Executive, who is the Clerk to the Assembly.  The Commission is also responsible for the estate, including the Senedd, the building which houses the chamber and Committee rooms and the associated buildings housing Assembly staff and member’s offices.

There are 6 Subject matter Committees and six others dealing with matters including finance, audit and petitions.  The number is constrained because of the number of members and the restriction on those in ministerial posts.  In practice, this means that getting access can be difficult.  The Ombudsman there does have his annual report considered by Committee, but has limited opportunities for access otherwise.

Incidentally, the Welsh Ombudsman selection process is managed by the Assembly Commission, and not by the Government. It’s led by a Committee Chair with independent HR advice and an Ombudsman from another jurisdiction sits on the recruitment panel to offer professional advice.  The candidate emerging from this process is questioned by Committee (as in Ireland) and voted on by the Assembly.  The appointment is by the head of state, as in Ireland.  The Ombudsman’s budget is also set by the Assembly, and the Ombudsman recruits his own staff to ensure full independence from government.

The Assembly Commission have a well resourced research team to provide good quality unbiased briefing material to Assembly members which assists them in scrutinising legislation and holding the Government to account.  I’m sure that this is very similar to your work here.

Interestingly, as is the case in Northern Ireland, legislation to extend the Ombudsman’s powers or jurisdiction are brought forward by the Assembly, through Committees, and not by the Government.  New legislation is currently being developed in both Northern Ireland and Wales.

The constitutional arrangements of different countries are always interesting and it is evident that recently written constitutions tend to have a more rigorous separation of powers.  This can also be seen, for instance, in the countries of central and Eastern Europe, or in Africa.  In these countries, the Ombudsman’s role is often provided for in the constitution.

I’ve been very impressed with my contact with the staff of the Oireachtas.  The organisation of the Committees here is excellent, and of course as Ombudsman, I appreciate the opportunity to be able to keep Members aware of my work.

When you’re looking at things which go wrong, it gives you a very useful perspective on public services, and this can benefit the Oireachtas by providing information useful in scrutinising public services, but also in making the case for new legislation, or in ensuring that draft legislation is developed in a way which makes it fit for purpose.

Thank you for your attention and I look forward to continuing to work with you in the future.  I’m happy to answer any questions.