The Ombudsman system provides the citizens access to an independent, impartial and inexpensive dispute resolution mechanism which can resolve their grievances and protect their rights. It’s role in enforcing administrative accountability ensures that public service activities and in particular, the exercise of decision-making powers, whether discretionary or otherwise, are carried out not only appropriately but in a manner that is consistent with fairness and good administrative practice. The ombudsman investigates maladministration which includes a decision, a recommendation, an act of omission or commission which is either unjust or biased, oppressive and prejudiced.
As the spectrum of the government’s involvement in the administrative, development and social sectors widened, government machinery entered almost all facets of human activity. The government’s growing involvement even in sectors such as water, gas and electricity has consequently increased the interaction of the people with the agencies of the government arising from instances of unsatisfactory performance and abuse of authority by functionaries of the government.
An ombudsman provides a mechanism for enforcing accountability. They act as a deterrent to mal-governance and correction of malfeasance in government officers.
The inauguration of the ombudsman system with a district culture, during the course of time, has proved to be tremendously efficacious in arresting the continued erosion of confidence of the common man in the role of the functionaries of the government. Additionally, because of its performance, its independence, neutrality, informal investigation and no cost, it has gained confidence and importance and now the system, in one form or another, exists in almost every country around the world.
The ombudsman system is to be judged by its achievement, by its radical and reformative role in resolving grievances of the people and moulding the behaviour of the agencies of the government. The ombudsman looks at the human problem with a sense of equity and impartiality rather than relying on customs and traditions for seeking administrative justice.
It is surprising that while there existed pressing need for establishing the institution in developing countries, it came too late in Asia. The institution of ombudsman was set up in Pakistan through a presidential order in 1983. The need for the institution was more pressing in Pakistan, considering the rapidly growing population and evolving institutional processes.
Apart from individuals, groups and communities are also approaching this institution for redressal of their problems relating to water supply, preservation of parks and play lands from encroachments and raising of unauthorised structures, besides other issues.
A few deficiencies existed in the establishment of the Office of Wafaqi Mohtasib (Ombudsman). Presidential Order 1983 was rectified through the Federal Ombudsman Institutional Reforms Act 2013, which I had the privilege of moving through Federal Cabinet, and which was passed by the Parliament a few weeks ago. The institution of Wafaqi Mohtasib is now empowered to act in aid of the people. The ombudsman may; summon and enforce attendance of any person and examine on oath, compel to produce documents, receive evidence on affidavits and issue commission for the examination of the witness. He/she may authorise to enter and search any premises and inspect any article, book of accounts or other documents. They have the power to punish any person for contempt, having the same powers, mutatis mutandis as that of the Honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan. They can require any person to furnish information on such points or matters as in the opinion of the Ombudsman may be useful for the investigative purpose, can award costs and compensation and refund of amount, seek the assistance of any person or authority for the performance of his function, take measures to curb maladministration including corrupt practices and graft. Lastly, the ombudsman may informally conciliate, amicable resolve, stipulate settle or ameliorate any grievance without written memorandum and without the necessity of docketing any complaint.
These powers have been given, to ameliorate the grievances of the common man. For fulfilling the objectives, the Ombudsman Office has been made most accessible to the public through system and procedures that are simple to follow and allow the public freedom in availing these facilities to seek redress of their problems.
Those who are harassed and victimised by the agencies of the government can approach the ombudsman with confidence. The agencies which are accused on non-responsive attitude, red-tapism and delaying tactics have now become conscious and cautious as they know they have to face the complainants before the ombudsman to justify their actions or inaction. The ombudsman ensures that rights and privileges of the people are not infringed upon and that they are not subjected to official high handedness.
Encouraged by the success at the Federal level of the Wafaqi Mohtasib, all four provinces and Azad Kashmir subsequently set up the Institution in their respective provinces along similar lines. The Institution has made further progress in Pakistan as we now have other ombudsmen as well, dealing with specialised subjects such as the Federal Tax Ombudsman, the Banking Ombudsman and the Insurance Ombudsman.
While the ombudsman office is effectively addressing public complaints, its role in reforming systemic deficiencies of public sector agencies is also being recognised.
The Federal Ombudsman has provided relief to over two hundred thousand complainants during the last couple of years. For further improving the redressal mechanism and making delivery service more accessible to the people, especially those living in remote areas, we have launched yet another initiative under Speedy Complaint Resolution at the proverbial doorsteps of the common man. Under the Pilot Project, the designated investigating officers visiting the interior of the country are required to hear the cases at district or tehsil headquarters within ten days of registration and prepare findings within 48 hours after hearings. The complaint is finally disposed of within fifteen days after completing the required formalities. The pilot project has proved a great success. The initiative is being widely appreciated.
To deal with phenomenal increase in the volume of work and for ensuring speedy response to public complaints, the Ombudsman Secretariat has been equipped with a state-of-the-art technology-based system which is expected to meet the requirements and expectations of the multitude of Pakistani complainants both from within the country and those living abroad.