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Keep Ombudsman’s eye on big picture

By | March 20th 2009

Six months of work and it appears the Office of the Ombudsman is walking in the footsteps of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission — at least as far as how it reports what it has been doing.

In two quarterly reports covering July to December last year, the Public Complaints Standing Committee gives the public some insight into the volume of cases dealt with, but not into the value of what they are doing.

This is not surprising: Executive Director Kenneth Mwige, the man behind the day-to-day operations at the Ombudsman’s office, was for years an assistant to Justice Aaron Ringera at Integrity Centre. He, thus, appears to have inherited ideas about presenting such a body’s achievements.

It seems if fresh ideas are to come to the Ombudsman’s office, they must come from the staff of 25 hired to work under Mwige. Or from less busy civil society and media voices convinced that the watchdog of Government should be more than a traffic policeman directing complaints, or a statistician analysing how complaints were processed and ranking institutions. Ideally, the Ombudsman should go beyond resolving complaints received and advise the President, Cabinet ministries and other State institutions on corrective measures necessary to reduce complaints.

Historical Injustices

Created more than a year before its official launch in August last year, the committee has had lots of time to consider how to approach its mandate and which of its dozen functions to concentrate on. We are not certain it has picked on the right one, judging from its most recent reports.

Gazette Notice 5826 of 2007, through which President Kibaki established the Office of the Ombudsman, does include registering, sorting and documenting complaints as its first function.

The Ombudsman is expected to inquire into allegations of misuse of office, corruption, unethical conduct, maladministration, delay, discourtesy, injustice, incompetence, inefficiency and so on. This task, we note, the office seems to have done quite well, concluding delay, injustice and misuse of office to be the most common reasons for complaint.

But, as it is a small office and must remain as such, it has more important functions than merely documenting complaints. First, the office is expected to help setup and build the public sector’s capacity for handling complaints. Complaints against the Nairobi City Council, for instance, or the police are at such levels that improving these institutions’ ability to handle complaints internally should be a priority.

Next, the Ombudsman is expected to "review codes of conduct, regulations, processes and procedures in public service and recommend changes necessary to reduce complaints". The opinions and advice on wide-reaching remedy it gives to permanent secretaries or chief executives of State corporations, and recommendations it makes on changes to the law, in our opinion, should be part of the information made public in its quarterly reports.

Only one page of the 85 or so in the two latest reports is devoted to recommendations — a miserly four. While the mandate given to the Ombudsman requires the quarterly report inform the public on the number and nature of the complaints received, it also speaks of "action taken by the committee".

This, in our opinion, should not be limited to action taken to resolve individual complaints. It is of greater help to the public to get a picture of how the Ombudsman is helping improve processes in the Immigration Department, for instance, rather than how it helped one citizen hasten their application for a passport.

Big Picture

As the Ombudsman’s office is just starting off, there is reason to hope it can still move quickly to achieve results on its ‘big picture’ functions and escape the harsh assessments that have met bodies like Kacc. Mwige and his team should not be asking for more money and staff to handle more complaints. They should diagnose and help fix more of the broken parts of the Government to spread the burden of dealing with complaints and cut them down to the exceptions.

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