Ombudsman’s Annual Report stresses “essential” oversight of public sector in pandemic, highlights improvements and gaps
June 28, 2021
28 June 2021
In handling 20,015 cases, watchdog “ensured transparency, accountability, fairness and respect for people’s rights”
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(TORONTO – June 29, 2021) Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé today emphasized the importance of independent oversight of public services in times of crisis – and called attention to serious gaps in the areas of public health and policing.
In his 2020-2021 Annual Report, the Ombudsman details how his office helped thousands of Ontarians navigate confusing and rapidly changing information about public services during the COVID-19 pandemic. From simple referrals to complex investigations, Ombudsman staff interventions bridged gaps in systems under stress.
“It is precisely in circumstances such as a global pandemic that citizens need and rely upon their public services more than ever,” Mr. Dubé says in the report. “Through it all, our staff demonstrated that independent oversight of public services is essential, particularly in times of crisis. They ensured transparency, accountability, fairness and respect for people’s rights.”
The report cites highlights in the office’s handling of 20,015 complaints between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021. For example, Ombudsman staff:
Helped hundreds of people resolve problems with services and benefits through referrals and inquiries.
Raised “urgent and ongoing concerns” with senior government officials about vulnerable groups affected by the pandemic, such as inmates, people reliant on social services or with complex special needs, and children and youth in care and custody.
Provided guidance to municipalities on best practices for electronic council meetings, which were made legal for the first time due the pandemic and resulted in a surge in complaints and inquiries to the Ombudsman.
Identified problems with communication and poor service delivery in a range of organizations, prompting changes to practices and policies.
Progressed on two major systemic investigations in areas seriously affected by the pandemic – long-term care oversight and delays at the Landlord and Tenant Board. New investigations are also underway into the closure of youth justice centres in Northern Ontario and cuts to French-language programs at Laurentian University.
As well, in May 2021, the Ministry of Health accepted all of the Ombudsman’s recommendations to improve its oversight of ambulance services. The government also welcomed recommendations by French Language Services Commissioner Kelly Burke in her inaugural Annual Report, released by the Ombudsman’s office in December 2020.
However, the pandemic has also revealed the need for more scrutiny and action in two key areas, the Ombudsman notes:
Public health units are not subject to any independent oversight. They are excluded from the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman (which received 87 complaints about them in 2020-2021), as well as the Ministry of Health’s Patient Ombudsman. “I encourage the government to establish independent oversight of public health units as soon as is practicable,” Mr. Dubé says in the report.
The government has not fully implemented 2019 legislation to expand oversight of police, and the Ministry of the Solicitor General has not acted on most of the Ombudsman’s 2016 recommendations to improve police training in de-escalating conflict situations. “My fear is that the glacial pace of reform, in the face of the tragedies that continue to occur, will further undermine public confidence in the police,” he writes.
Mr. Dubé acknowledged the “tremendous efforts” of public servants at all levels across Ontario in dealing with the myriad challenges of COVID-19, and credited the results achieved by his office to “our long-established working relationships across the public sector.”
He also noted that throughout the pandemic, his office and its counterparts across Canada and around the world have collaborated on common issues, such as creating fairness guidelines for vaccine passports, and supporting new principles adopted by the United Nations to bolster ombudsman institutions around the world.
The Ombudsman is an independent, impartial officer of the Ontario Legislature who resolves and investigates public complaints about provincial government bodies, as well as French language services, child protection services, municipalities, universities and school boards. He does not overturn decisions of elected officials or set public policy, but makes recommendations to ensure administrative fairness, transparency and accountability. The Ombudsman’s recommendations have been overwhelmingly accepted by government. Mr. Dubé was appointed to a second five-year term as Ombudsman as of April 1, 2021.
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