Ombudsman vows to handle complaints faster

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 April, 2014, 3:16am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 April, 2014, 3:16am

The Office of the Ombudsman will seek to halve the time it takes to deal with minor complaints and focus more resources on tackling pressing matters of public interest, new Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing says.

Lau, who became the government's chief watchdog this month, says many of the complaints the office receives do not involve serious maladministration by departments or statutory bodies. The office could tackle such complaints in ways other than investigation, she said.

The options could include mediation between the complainant and the department in which the office's trained mediators would help both parties to agree on a solution. "Mediation is quick. That is its biggest advantage," said Lau, who previously headed the Consumer Council.

Another option would be to put the two parties in direct contact. Following a complaint, the department in question would be asked to offer an explanation both to the office and directly to the complainant, Lau said.

Both would offer faster solutions than the formal investigation process, under which the watchdog would have to go to the department involved and compile a report before getting back to the complainant.

Such alternative solutions would be ideal in cases where the complainant wanted nothing more than a quick solution - like a water leak, assistant ombudsman Tony Ma Kai-loong said.

By using mediation or direct resolution a case could be handled in about six weeks, rather than the three months a formal investigation might need.

But in the 2012/13 fiscal year, just 22 of the 5,401 complaints the ombudsman received were settled following mediation.

The tiny percentage reflects a lack of understanding of mediation by government departments, fellow assistant ombudsman Frederick Tong Kin-sang said. There was also some confusion with arbitration, in which a third party puts forward a solution. "Some of them mistook mediation for arbitration," he said.

Some civil servants were also under the false impression that they would have to make instant decisions during mediation, without reporting back to their bosses, he added.

By reducing resources used for minor cases, Lau said the ombudsman could focus on active investigations - cases in which the office takes the initiative to examine an issue without receiving complaints from the public.

The office carried out about five of six investigations each year, she said. While she ruled out setting a precise goal for the number of investigations, Lau vowed to take on more issues that were of great public interest.

In her first media gathering yesterday, Lau said she had received dozens of job offers since her retirement as chief executive of the Consumer Council in 2012.

She chose to accept the offer to become Ombudsman due to her positive impression of the role and its mission to serve the public. "To put it simply, it's another watchdog role," she said.