2008

OMBUDSMAN SAYS GOVERNMENT SHOULD PUT PEOPLE AHEAD OF POLICY

2008-04-23

News Release

Saskatchewan Ombudsman Kevin Fenwick says government offices need to put people ahead of policy. In his annual report, tabled today in the Legislative Assembly, he says that highly publicized incidents of fraud in recent years are creating a stronger focus on accountability – but he warns that too strict an application of the rules could cause more harm than good.

“Policy is generally created to help government do a better job of serving people,” Fenwick says. “But if government is bowing at the altar of accountability to the exclusion of common sense and fairness, then the policies are going to fail the very people they are meant to serve. Our office often receives complaints where a government office strictly applied policy and
made an unfair decision.”

For example:

  • A property owner was told he would have to get his property re-surveyed (a cost of about$5,000) to correct a government clerical error. Fortunately, when our office contacted the Registrar of Land Titles she offered a fair resolution and we recognized her with an Accoladein our annual report.
  • A truck owner was told he had to pay the $500 deductible when his truck was damaged by a downed power line on the highway. The Ombudsman noted that one does not reasonably expect to encounter a downed power line on the highway. He recommended SaskPower pay the deductible and they did.
  • A recent heart attack patient on Social Assistance was told she could not have taxi fare to attend cardiac rehab, even though her doctor said she was not well enough to take the bus. With our involvement and the persuasion of the Client Representative for the Health Region,Community Resources (Social Services) agreed to make an exception.

Fenwick says the answer is to make sure public servants are not afraid to exercise some discretion in the application of the rules. “I don’t think we have to sacrifice accountability for good service. In fact, auditors have told me that occasionally making an exception to the rules in the interest of fairness is fine as long as it is properly documented. If public servants know they have the backing of government to make reasonable exceptions from time to time, the public
will be better served.”

One set of government organizations in particular received the Ombudsman’s attention in 2007. As a group, administrative tribunals such as the Labour Relations Board, the Highway Traffic Board, and others make thousands of rulings each year. Fenwick believes the people who present their cases to these organizations deserve clear, timely decisions. He investigated six  administrative tribunals in the province as a representative sample. The results of the investigation were published in a report titled Hearing Back, which contained 27 recommendations for improving timeliness and related quality across this sector.

The report has been well received by tribunals across the province and has received positive attention from national organizations dedicated to the improvement of government
administration. Fenwick has also received speaking invitations as a result of the report.

Fenwick is passionate about creating change by educating government and is pleased by the positive change he is seeing in some areas. “Some government organizations have Fair Practices offices, and some are increasing their emphasis on service quality. This is encouraging indeed, and we need to see more of it.” Fenwick also notes that there is an increasing demand
within government for the Fair Practice workshops his office offers.

To read the Ombudsman Saskatchewan 2007 Annual Report online, go to www.ombudsman.sk.ca and click on News/What’s New.

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