PF: Who watches Government watchdogs?
How do we know that they are doing things right?
OMB: Watchdog organisations, like the Ombudsman, ACC, Namfisa, etc. are also accountable and should be held accountable as it is public money that is used to fund their operations. So, the public in general should therefore “watch” the watchdogs. Unfortunately you cannot have the general public watching in a structured manner but the elected representative of the general public is Parliament and the Parliament can therefore be regarded as the watchdog of watchdogs. In the instance of the Ombudsman, our Act (Act 7 of 1990) also provides for our annual reports to be submitted for tabling in Parliament in order for them to have insight into what we are doing and how we are spending the money given to us annually.
Watchdog organisations should, through the way they conduct themselves, prove their integrity; the media normally brings out the axe very quickly when they feel that watchdog organisations are not doing it right.; it should also be remembered that these bodies, although independent, are most definitely accountable administratively and more specifically how they spent their budgets.
The 2nd accountability measure is the court. If a person or persons are not satisfied with the way within which their cases were handled by a watchdog organisation, they can pursue legal avenues, which in a way is an additional watchdog-of-the-watchdogs option that exists in Namibia.
PF: How effective is the Ombudsman? Is it not toothless?
OMB: No, the teeth are there but they are not always utilised. The Ombudsman is an institution which by its very nature is non-adversarial and as such would exhaust all means of amicable avenues to find solutions which would result in all parties being satisfied. However, it may be perceived as a drawback that the Ombudsman does not have the power to compel offending institutions to rectify a mistake. Although the Ombudsman may approach a competent court to enforce a recommendation, it is a very costly exercise for which adequate financing will always remain a problem. So yes, the Ombudsman does have teeth but it is sometimes difficult to resort to it as a first option.
PF: What about independence?
OMB: Of course Government has expressed that the Ombudsman is totally independent as provided for in the Constitution. The Ombudsman has never experienced any interference in carrying out his duties.
PF: How aware are Namibians when it comes to reporting issues concerning public offices?
OMB: The Ombudsman annually invests a great deal of time and resources in public education. Unfortunately one only becomes aware of a need to report an issue if something happens that directly concerns them and only at that stage would one start looking for an institution to report a certain incident to. Because we have been making an attempt towards advertising the services of the office during the past years, people contact us on a daily basis to find out where they can complain about issues. Because of our jurisdiction restrictions we cannot look into all complaints, however, in such cases we always refer complainants to more suitable agencies for assistance.
PF: So what are the major challenges being encountered by the Ombudsman?
OMB: Financial and human resources seem to be a major problem for most watchdog agencies, while in the case of the Ombudsman specifically, demographics present some major challenges, especially in view of the Ombudsman’s pledge to be accessible to all the people of Namibia. It also remains a challenge to educate public institutions regarding their duties towards the citizenry as well as attending to enquiries from the Ombudsman when they neglect their duties.
PF: How do you describe the type of issues/complaints brought before the Ombudsman?
OMB: We mostly receive complaints regarding maladministration and these range from personnel issues in the Public, Police and Prison Service to Civic Affair issues like waiting periods for the issuing of documents. It is actually a very wide range of complaints and it requires the investigators of this office to have a vast knowledge about a lot of topics.
You can imagine that they must have knowledge of the Public Service Act and rules, as well as how it is applied, they must have a working knowledge of the Labour Act and the procedures around labour issues, the Criminal and Civil Procedure, local authorities, immigration control, registration of births, deaths and the conducting of marriages, all acts and policies pertaining to children including the maintenance act, to name just but a few.
Because the Ombudsman is also the Human Rights protector, the office receives complaints about human rights abuses such as access to education, especially relating to the School Development Fund that parents can in some instances not afford to contribute to and matters relating to the right to a speedy trial. With regard to the investigation and dealing with human rights complaints, the directives of the various International Human Rights Instruments must also be taken into account.
PF: Several instances, the public seemingly enjoys writing to the media to air their grievances than reporting to watchdogs such as the ACC and the Ombudsman. Is this a sign of a breach of trust from the public to government watchdogs?
OMB: No. It is the right of all individuals to express their grievances in a manner that they desire or feel comfortable with. It must also be recognised that an aggrieved person finds a much larger audience when a grievance is reported in the media; however, the question is whether a grievance will be resolved in such an instance. In most cases, watchdog agencies do not share their successes with the media and this may create a public perception that they are not performing well, or at all. PF