Office of the Ombudsman has often received flack for being toothless, but it has since been revealed that their attempts to resolve cases are frustrated by uncooperative government departments as well as a shortage of investigators.
The 59th meeting of Public Accounts Committee (PAC) members was recently shocked when the acting Ombudsman, Dudu Leinaeng revealed that they only have 20 investigators to execute their mandate.
To add to this, she said some ministries and departments often ignore their communication while others choose to delay their communications. The committee is examining the government books for the period 2019-2020.
The office of the Ombudsman is charged with promoting administrative justice by investigating allegations of maladministration within the public sector.
As a dispute resolution mechanism alternative to the courts, the office discharges its mandate by investigating complaints of improper administrative conduct and recommending remedial actions where, in the opinion of the Ombudsman, the complainant has suffered injustice arising from the administrative conduct.
When appearing before the PAC recently, Leinaeng said the main challenge they face as a department in discharging their mandate is the non or delayed responsiveness by government institutions when they seek responses to allegations made by complainants against them.
“The main challenge that we face in our office is delayed or non-responsiveness by ministries during our investigations while others are not giving substantive responses. A few ignore our communication while many just delay their responses. In some instances, we are forced to subpoena witnesses to account,” said Leinaeng.
“This is a pain that has continued to prevail over the years and it’s very unfortunate because we are an office that is supposed to execute its mandate very smoothly and deliver justice while still fresh.”
Leinaeng said this together with the shortage of investigators contributes to the low resolution of cases by her Office, as witnessed by the paltry 46.1% they resolved during the year under review.
She said the office has a staff complement of 103, many of whom are support personnel. This came as a shock to PAC members, more so that investigating is a core mandate of the office.
PAC chairperson, Dithapelo Keorapetse wondered how that is possible when the office is also about to adopt another mandate, of human rights when the new bill passed by Parliament commences.
But Leinaeng said there have made interventions of addressing non-responsiveness.
“You have to realise that maladministration is a mindset issue and therefore we have to continuously engage the departments and ministries in educating them to understand the needs of addressing issues very swiftly,” she said.
Leinaeng indicated that they have led seminars geared towards addressing this issue as well as benchmarking with other jurisdictions on how to address the non-responsiveness issue.
“Because we have realised that this issue of non-responsiveness is also a problem in other jurisdictions and as such we have benchmarked and exchanged programmes and adopted mechanisms as a result,” she added.
On the issue of shortage of investigators, the Accounting Officer said because of the lack of a school of Ombudsman practitioners the world over, they rely on exchange programmes and benchmarking to train investigators. She said that Ombudsman investigators require specialised training.
She said they lose trained investigators because of a lack of certain allowances for Ombudsman officers. However, she said there are efforts to improve investigators’ conditions of service. She also revealed that their attempts to create more posts for investigators have been turned down on the basis of government’s policy that new positions cannot be created.
She stated that it would be impossible to adopt the new broadened mandate without increasing the number of investigators. She said the Ministry of Finance has allocated the office P60 million specifically for the creation of positions for investigators.