Belfast Telegraph

Are there just too many official watchdogs in Northern Ireland?

By David Gordon

A warning has been sounded over the array of watchdog |organisations overseeing public bodies in Northern Ireland — with fears that “accountability fatigue” may hamper the delivery of services.

The comments have been made by the head of one of the most powerful of the oversight bodies, Northern Ireland Ombudsman Tom Frawley.

His organisation probes complaints from members of the public over the services provided by various Government bodies.

It is one of a long list of watchdogs in the province with investigatory powers.

While stressing the importance of proper accountability and oversight, Mr Frawley believes that a serious review is needed to make sure the right balance is being struck.

He told the Belfast Telegraph: “At the end of the day, what we need to do is really ensure that the whole system is working as a |system, that there is clarity in |relationships and roles.”

Mr Frawley also said: “That's not something that should be a one-off, that's something that should be a five-year review, or seven-year review — looking at how the whole system is working and making sure that it continues to be relevant and fit for purpose.”

The Ombudsman said one issue that had to be considered is “affordability”, given the number of oversight organisations serving a province with a population of 1.7 million people.

In addition, there is the question of clarity for members of the public about who exactly to turn to with their grievances.

“Can the public make any sense of it?” he asked.

The third issue concerns the impact on those providing public services, and the danger of “accountability fatigue” — as time and energy is devoted to dealing with various investigations.

Mr Frawley's own job highlights one of the complications in the current set-up.

The Northern Ireland Ombudsman is actually a popular name covering two separately-constituted offices: the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, which deals with Government departments and agencies, and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, which oversees such bodies as district councils, education boards and health trusts.

Mr Frawley is hopeful that a long awaited modernisation of the two offices will bring them together into one body.

Meanwhile, there are two other entirely separate Ombudsman office-holders in Northern Ireland, dealing with the police and |prisons.

Other high-profile oversight bodies include the Equality Commission, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Children's Commissioner, the Audit Office and the Criminal |Justice Inspectorate. A new |office, the Commissioner for Older People, is also planned.

This month marks Mr Frawley's 10th anniversary as Northern Ireland Ombudsman.

“What the 10 years have demonstrated to me is how crucial this office is,” he said.

He also stressed the importance of its work during public spending cut, in ensuring that the interests of individual citizens are properly protected.

“At a time of difficult choices and funding changes, then the role of this office can become more important,” he stated.

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