View Full Version : Ombudsman - a concept

03-20-2009, 08:41 PM
The concept of the OMBUDSMAN – a person designated to receive complaints from citizens particularly in relation to their dealings with government - is one of those progressive ideas from abroad that found their way into our political and legal systems, but could not be made to work for lack of appreciation of what they mean. At no other time is this more apparent in our country than today. From being the people’s last shield against the abuses and corruption of the executive, the ombudsman has turned into its opposite – a shield of the executive against the complaints of the citizens.

The modern use of the term began in 1809, with the establishment of the Swedish Parliamentary Ombudsman. As conceptualized, this office was to act as an autonomous supervisory agency of government, mandated to safeguard citizens’ right from the actions and omissions of government. To fulfill this role, the Office of the Ombudsman is given total independence from the political branches of government. Indeed, one cannot think of any other office that draws its sustenance from the principle of separation of powers more than the ombudsman. Accordingly, it is very important that the individual appointed to the position be carefully chosen from among the freest, most respected, and most credible figures in society. On this criterion ultimately depends the effectiveness of the office.

The institution of an ombudsman has had mixed results in various parts of the world precisely because, more than most public positions, this office relies heavily for its success on the credibility of the occupant. We know this only too well in the Philippines, where the appointing powers tend to pay little or no regard to the capacity of appointees to public office of project an image of independence and integrity. The defect clearly is not in the law but in the lack of respect of the appointing powers for the institutions themselves.

In Spain, the ombudsman is known as “defensor del pueblo” (defender of the people). No appellation perhaps captures the concept better. Here is an official who has the power and the duty to investigate other agencies of government on behalf of the people, to recommend remedies, and even to direct agencies to correct their deficiencies. This is the closest one can get to the idea of government as a self-policing system. The ombudsman is thus a crucial mechanism for avoiding conflict-of-interest situations within government.

The ombudsman’s functions are comprehensive because the problems that citizens can have with their government are varied. In Sweden, where the concept originated, the ombudsman’s functions have undergone differentiation. They take the concept so seriously that there is an ombudsman for equal opportunity, and ombudsman for children’s rights, and ombudsman for the disabled, and ombudsman against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, an ombudsman on ethnic discrimination, an ombudsman for consumer rights, etc.

When one considers the broad range of functions that are lodged in the offices of the various ombudsmen, one cannot help wondering who in the Philippines looks after these concerns. Certainly, it is not the ombudsman. As we know, our people either go to the mass media or to their political patrons for relief – a practice that only extends the life of various forms of patronage and dependence in our society.

Government can become so powerful, so anonymous, and so self-perpetuating that it is difficult for ordinary citizens, especially in hierarchical societies like ours, to imagine themselves as the masters of the system. The institution of the ombudsman is the political system’s way of telling the people that government indeed belongs to them, and not to the rulers. This belief is essential to the functioning of a democratic society.

The framers of the 1987 Philippine Constitution deeply understood the concept of an ombudsman and stressed its importance by making provisions to institute it in Article XI, Accountability of Public Officers, Sec. 12 reads: The Ombudsman and his Deputies, as protectors of the people, shall act promptly on complaints filed in any form or manner against public officials or employees of the Government, or any subdivision, agency or instrumentality thereof, including government-owned or controlled corporations and shall, in appropriate cases, notify the complaints of the action taken and result thereof.

“Protector of the people” got a new meaning the other day after Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez launched a personal attack on the citizens who dared to question her ability to carry out the functions of her office. After that defensive outburst at the press conference she herself called, Ms Gutierrez would be foolish to think that anyone could still trust her to do justice to the people’s complaints against their government.

The impeachment process, the only means by which a non-performing ombudsman who has betrayed public trust may be removed from office, places the onus of rectifying this situation on both houses of Congress. This makes the entire issue ultimately a political question, which, in some way, is good. We should be watching carefully from hereon how our representatives conduct themselves on this question. Will they bother to examine the chargers and consider the evidence? Or will they take their cue, as before, from Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who seems to have put Gutierrez where she is, precisely to shield her fake presidency?