Role of the Ombudsman

 

POLICY STATEMENT

The Ombudsman seeks to ensure fairness for Victorians in their dealings with the public sector and improve public administration.
 
In performing the functions of the office, the Ombudsman aims for excellence in providing a quality service to the public.

What is an Ombudsman?

  1. The modern conception of the Ombudsman as an arbiter of administrative fairness is consistent with its Swedish origin in 1809, where the institution was established to assist citizens in defending against governmental maladministration and abuse of power (the Swedish ombud, derived from the Old Norse umboosmaor, or ‘representative’).
  2. This should not be confused with the notion of the Ombudsman as an advocate for citizens.
  3. The Victorian Ombudsman is an independent officer of the Victorian Parliament whose principal function is to enquire into and investigate administrative actions taken in or by Victorian state government departments, agencies and local councils. The office was established in 1973.
  4. Parliamentary ombudsmen such as VO are in essence a consequence of ‘responsible’ government, which holds that the elected government as a representative of the will of the people must:
  • be accountable to the public for its actions and decisions
  • institutionalise governmental accountability by providing the public with the means to complain about deficient government administration.
  1. The Ombudsman Act 1973 is the source of the Victorian Ombudsman’s authority, and the means by which we are also held accountable. The office of the Victorian Ombudsman:
  • acts as a kind of quality assurance mechanism for government
  • holds the composite position of being an oversight body of government, while being subject to the same standards of integrity and fairness (i.e. administrative law principles) used to assess the performance of government
  • must lead by modelling excellence in public administration.
  1. There are approximately 150 parliamentary ombudsman offices across the globe, including at a commonwealth level and in each state and territory of Australia and across the Asia Pacific region. While the emphasis of any local ombudsman is necessarily guided by the cultural and social priorities of the state in question, the core function of investigating grievances against the state is retained.
  2. With the privatisation and outsourcing of essential services has been a tangential rise of private industry-based ombudsmen, who monitor and resolve industry specific issues, in telecommunications, or electricity services, for example.
  3. Whether the context be a private industry scheme or a parliamentary democracy, the term ‘ombudsman’ has in effect come to symbolise ‘complaint handler’.
  4. When dealing with all matters, we use our (publicly funded) resources judiciously, and prioritise enabling vulnerable groups in the community to access  administrative justice.

What is the Ombudsman’s purpose?

  1. The Ombudsman has oversight of government authorities for the purpose of fostering administration that is guided by the public interest.  
  2. The Ombudsman’s role is to form opinions regarding the matters brought to  the attention of the office. To do this, the Ombudsman draws on discretions embedded in the Ombudsman Act, which allow us to make decisions and form views about the merit of complaints and administrative action.
  3. An Ombudsman’s currency is reasoning, and our decisions are guided and bound by the limits of the Ombudsman Act (and in matters of conduct, the Protected Disclosure Act 2012, as discussed in our ‘Investigations’ policy).
  4. The Ombudsman Act provides a broad range of opinions that the Ombudsman can reach about administrative actions. For example, that an administrative action is ‘contrary to law’, ’unreasonable, unjust, oppressive or improperly discriminatory’ or simply ‘wrong’. Similarly, the Ombudsman Act provides scope for the Ombudsman to recommend action to address the deficiency.
  5. Beyond the roots of legislative authority, the Ombudsman’s power is conspicuous in the impact of the execution of our core functions. For example:
  • through the informal and efficient resolution of complaints, individual members of the public can experience the benefits of our intervention and agencies are given opportunities to improve their practices
  • in our public reports to parliament, we articulate systemic administrative failure and recommend remedial action, which harnesses the power of our reputation as an integrity agency to secure the cooperation of a respondent agency to improve.
  1. It is crucial for both the public and the government to have confidence in the impartiality and independence of the Ombudsman. It is important for the public to be aware and trust that the Ombudsman is free from government direction and interference in our scrutiny of public administration. It is equally important for the government to have confidence in the Ombudsman’s integrity and impartiality in the discharge of the Ombudsman’s statutory functions and powers.
  2. The Ombudsman is not a court of law; and although the office is vested with significant powers, the Ombudsman is not able to enforce the office’s decisions or recommendations for administrative change. The Ombudsman must draw on the power of persuasion through authoritative and reasoned argument and rely on the integrity and reputation of the office, to effect administrative improvement across government. By offering proposals or recommendations for change, the role of the Ombudsman evolves along with the social context which gives it relevance.

Roles and responsibilities

Role
Responsibility
Manager, Human Rights Portfolio
This policy (PO_SF_07) is compatible with the human rights protected by the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities 2006
Assistant Director, Portfolios & Administrative Improvement
Policy owner
Governance Committee
Policy authorisation

This policy is a guide only and is not legal advice.  Staff should refer to relevant legislation.