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An office of last resort

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Has someone in a provincial government department given you a less than satisfactory answer? Have you had a request denied by a provincial official with no reason given? Did you appeal and still feel like you hit a brick wall? Well maybe you should be talking to Peter Hourihan.

The province’s Ombudsman, Hourihan, and a team of investigators from his office were in Pincher Creek last Wednesday to promote their work and meet with people face-to-face.

Basicially, his job is to look into accounts of the Albertan government not treating people fairly. Hourihan is the eigth provincial ombudsman and is in year three of a five year appointment. He can be reappointed.

He stopped in the Echo office to tell us a bit about what he does. This is what he had to say (interview has been edited for clarity.)

On the duties of the Ombudsman

“We’re about, society today and government today, certainly government really today is about accountability and transparency. We just heard Mr. Prentice say that in the past couple days, that he is significantly concerned with accountability and transparency. Those are words I like to hear. Because we’re about transparency and accountability. And we want all Albertans to be treated fairly. So that’s my goal. So I watch quite frankly, I read things like throne speeches and budget speeches and listen to the government of the day speak up about what they like to see. Because when they say, ‘we’re about transparency and accountability’ then I take them at heart... and I look for that and encourage them to be more so when they’re not.”

“What we do is if someone feels that they’ve been treated unfairly by the Alberta government they can contact our office and we will assist them in determining if we can or can’t help them in that regard. In order to at the end of the day have full involvement of our office they have to exhaust all of the avenues of review or appeal available to them with the government department or of government entity they are dealing with. But that said they may not be sure if they are so we can help them through that.”

“We are the office of last resort. We are, kind of, the final step. Because once people get to us and they have exhausted everything - now they don’t have to exhaust the options of court, that’s not considered part of the options you have to exhaust - but yes we are the department of last resort so we can come in as a third party and we look at the administrative decisions. We look at how they were treated, was it fair? Did it follow the guidelines of administrative fairness? And we have eight administrative fairness guidelines that we go through. And these aren’t things we’ve dreamed up, they’re things that have been developed over years in courts and in different areas. But were you treated fairly? Did the person who made the decision have the authority to make the decision? Did they come through on the promises? Did they give you a chance to voice your concerns and bring up your side of the story? Did they have a bias or not?

“It used to be the government could just say ‘No.’ That’s not good enough anymore, they have to give reasons.”

“I’m not an advocate. I don’t assist people and act on their behalf. We look at the fairness issue.”

On the jurisdiction of his office

“When I say the provincial government, we have jurisdiction in most areas and we have some jurisdictional issues where we don’t have jurisdiction but we have jurisdiction over all of the provincial government, the departments... We have jurisdiction over the agencies, boards and commissions. We have jurisdiction over the self-regulated health professions, so the nurses, doctors, the dentists, the denturists, foresters, agrologists, accountants.”

“What I don’t have jurisdiction over is Alberta Health Services. I have a window of jurisdiction, if you will. Alberta Health Services has their own jurisdiction. If you have a complaint about Alberta Health Services you have to go through their patient concerns department or office and patient concerns will look after the matter. Now if someone’s not happy with what patient concerns did then we have jurisdiction there and we can look at what patient concerns did. But I can only look at what they did, I can’t look at the broader area.”

“If (people) are not sure we encourage them to call regardless we will help them out.”

“I don’t have jurisdiction over the police, including the RCMP. I don’t have jurisdiction over elected officials, MLAs, that’s the political arena so I don’t have jurisdiction over them, ministers. I don’t have jurisdiction over the municipal or federal governments. It’s just in relation to the provincial government.”

On the power of his office

“I don’t have the power to make a decision, so I can’t change the decision they received. All I can do is make recommendations back to the government department. So I can make recommendations.”

“Often times they were treated fairly except they weren’t told everything. But that can be a big piece of the reason why you think you were treated unfairly. So we’ll make sure that we go back and say, ‘You have to give the person proper reasons. You can’t just say no and you can’t just address a piece of what they’re asking. You’ve got to address the main points.’”

“We don’t expect government to be infallible, we expect government to be reasonable and fair.”

“It’s about process. If the process was significantly off the rails we might say, ‘Look, you need to rehear this. You didn’t give them the time of day. You didn’t give them the chance to speak up and they have information. You need to rehear it.’ About 98 per cent of the time our recommendations are implemented”

“If it’s something I’m very adamant about I’ll go one step ahead and go to the minister. If I’m not happy with what the minister says then I’ll take it right to the legislative assembly and let them debate it in the house.”

“But I do only have the power of recommendation, recommendation and persuasion. And persuasion is usually best. The option to go public always exists as well... And do we have to go that route very often? Not very often.”

On the rising number of calls received

“Of those 5000, just to give you an idea of where those other 4000 go, about 58 per cent are not jurisdictional to our office. So it would be somebody calling us about an insurance company or a bank or a theatre a mechanic. Something that’s not provincial government. But they’ve been treated unfairly they feel, so what we do is we don’t just hang up on them and say, ‘It’s not our problem.’ We try and help them get to the right place.”

“So there is a little bit of that and I think the nature of the beast is we are growing as a province so the numbers going to be increasing nominally each year. Interesting enough the percentages have been pretty consistent.”

On his background and training

“I had a career with the RCMP for 35 years.”

“There’s no specific special training for this, certainly an investigative background helps. We try and have a very diverse office in terms of backgrounds and skills. We like to have government knowledge and awareness to be able to navigate through the systems.

We want the ability to interview people and speak with people under difficult circumstances often... all the things that go along with investigation.”

“I have a background in mediation and I have a background in dealing with discipline issues and with grievance-type issues. So I’ve written decisions and provided guidance on writing decisions about grievances.”

On funding and maintaining independence

“We’re funded by the government and that’s an interesting point because sometimes people say, ‘How can you be independent if you’re funded by the government?’ And you know the best two examples I can give to people are all MLAs are funded by the government. That doesn’t slow down the opposition from disputing things from the government... or all of them working quite independently from one another. Judges are paid for out of the public purse, they’re independent... The key is the whole system has to provide independence to the way I think.”

“When we’ve asked for a budget we’ve received it... I don’t report to anyone per se. So I am really independent... So who I report to is the legislature as a whole.”

On why he was in Pincher Creek

“There’s always going to be issues and I think the awareness of our office is a significantly important piece. And that’s why we’re out here doing what we’re doing. Making sure people are aware. Because we’re not comfortable that all Albertans know who we are, what we do. I could say to people, ‘Oh hi, I’m the ombudsman’ and they could say, ‘What’s that?’”

“We’ve had a priority to increase the awareness that Albertans have of the ombudsman’s office in Alberta. So we’ve been going out trying to get to different communities across and around Alberta, in no particular order and not for any directed reason other than to increase awareness.” 

john.stoesser@sunmedia.ca

@echo_stoesser

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