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COMMENTARY: International Ombuds Day: Unusual name, important service

Diane McLeod-McKay

Diane McLeod-McKay

Special to the News

Ombuds Day was celebrated this week in the Yukon and internationally. The theme for the event, “Ombuds: Unusual Name. Important Service,” is very appropriate, as many citizens are unfamiliar with the office of the Yukon Ombudsman or the services we provide.

The office of the Yukon Ombudsman was established more than 20 years ago, when the Ombudsman Act was proclaimed into force in 1996. Public awareness of the role and work of this office has grown over time, but there are still many Yukoners who are unaware or uncertain about what the Ombudsman does, or how they may be able to use our services. This is one of the reasons we are pleased to mark Ombuds Day and provide information to Yukoners about our work.

Our main job is to look into complaints from citizens who feel they have been treated unfairly in the delivery of services by the Yukon government and other public authorities.

For many citizens, navigating the complexity of a large bureaucracy can be a significant challenge. My staff and I have extensive experience in working with government and a strong understanding of the inner workings of departments and other public authorities.

We can help resolve issues that may be challenging for individuals to manage on their own. This may occur through the work of our informal case resolution team, or through a full investigation, if necessary. If we find unfairness, we make recommendations to improve fairness.

These complaints may be about such things as delays in receiving a government decision, not being given the opportunity to provide input to a government decision, barriers to accessing a service and many other issues. Any decision, act or omission by a public servant in carrying out their mandated duties is under the jurisdiction of the Yukon Ombudsman.

These decisions include those made related to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as decisions about back-to-school plans or the re-opening of businesses. Our office has worked on two investigations that involve COVID-19 related restrictions, including one about the restrictions on live music in primary liquor-licensed premises, noting that the Chief Medical Officer of Health has now issued guidelines to facilitate live music in these venues.

We have a network of public servants whom we can work with and call on within public authorities to resolve fairness issues. These authorities include Yukon government departments, Yukon University, schools, hospitals, Crown corporations and others.

Our office is sometimes referred to as the “office of last resort”, which means that after an individual has exhausted internal complaint mechanisms, they can come to us. That said, my office may investigate any complaint received, even if internal complaint mechanisms have not been accessed. I have done this when the situation is warranted.

Yukoners also need to know that we are not an advocate for either public authorities or citizens. As an independent officer of the Yukon Legislative Assembly, investigations by my office are neutral. Our work is meant to promote good government and fairness within public services.

As part of this work, the Yukon Ombudsman collaborated with Ombuds offices across Canada to develop Fairness by Design, which is available on my website. The purpose of this self-assessment tool is to help public officials build fairness into programs at the very start, when they are designed, and to set standards to help public authorities ensure services are delivered in a fair manner.

When we hear from citizens who have a concern, we use these standards to assess complaints and evaluate the fairness of an organization’s administrative actions. Ensuring fairness in an organization’s treatment of, and service to, stakeholders can result in better engagement with citizens, fewer complaints, less litigation, more efficiency in operations, and improvements to staff morale.

I encourage any Yukoner who has questions about the work of our office and what we do to contact us.

For more information, visit my website or contact my office at 1-867-667-8468 or toll free at 1-800-661-0408 (ext. 8468). We will be pleased to answer your questions.

Diane McLeod-McKay is the Yukon Ombudsman.