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The Monday interview: The future of complaining

Ulster's Ombudsman hopes for a time when the public can text him

Interview by David Gordon

Important changes could be on the way for the Northern Ireland Ombudsman's office, with the return of devolution and a long-awaited Government review to be concluded.

Ombudsman Tom Frawley, the man who investigates complaints against public bodies, seems anxious to begin the process.

He talks about reinvention and can even envisage the day when people will bring their concerns to his office by text message.

Mr Frawley is concerned at the current emphasis in the procedures on complaints being made in writing.

"I think we need to look at how inaccessible that makes us to ordinary people and to address that problem," he says.

The text message idea comes in the context of being relevant to young people and what they want from public services.

"They mightn't write to me, they mightn't email me, but they might well text me," he suggests.

" I do think we have to reinvent ourselves, not just say this is the way we do it and you fit into our arrangements. We have to find ways of engaging."

Born in 1949, Mr Frawley moved to Northern Ireland as an 11-year-old from his native Limerick. He lives in Londonderry with his wife and three teenage children. His past jobs in the province's public sector include senior management roles in the Western Health and Social Services Board.

He has been Ombudsman since September 2000.

It's a position that actually involves two roles. As Assembly Ombudsman, he can investigate complaints against Northern Ireland Government departments and their agencies.

Bodies under his remit as Commissioner for Complaints, meanwhile, include local councils, education and health boards, health trusts and the Housing Executive.

He admits to being frustrated that an official Government review of the Ombudsman's Office has been stalled for some four years. A report on reform options was compiled, but nothing happened over the period while devolution remained suspended.

Mr Frawley is "hopeful" the process will be reactivated shortly by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

He believes the issues raised in the review document remain "current and relevant".

"I think that I have found it frustrating because we put a lot of work into it and it was a very robust analysis of the office and its fitness for purpose, to use the jargon," he says.

The Ombudsman understands the reasoning that such a review is best taken forward under a devolved Assembly.

"Now that we have that circumstance, I hope it will take place very urgently," he adds.

Issues to be examined for the future include whether the office should continue issuing a single report per year. It could, as one alternative, issue quarterly reports instead, each of them on separate topics like health, housing and local government

"If I have to wait a year before I can go into the public arena, I think that makes it hard for people to see my work as relevant," says Mr Frawley.

There is also the question of whether individual investigation reports should be published.

Another potential innovation from the review would be to give Mr Frawley the power to launch "own initiative" investigations without having to wait for a complaint to be made.

There is also a debate to be had on whether complaints from members of the public against Government departments should continue to require sponsorship from MLAs.

This is a "very important" issue. "It can look like a hurdle and I think we should remove that perception," says Mr Frawley.

The Ombudsman is hopeful that there can be an enhanced role for his office in the new devolved setting. "I think we have a real opportunity now to make this office more relevant to individual citizens," he says. " I think I can bring to the Assembly a perspective from people who have been disappointed by the services that they have received from the different public bodies."

The Ombudsman's latest annual report, issued in June, captured its fair share of headlines.

It contained some withering criticism in a number of cases, including the behaviour of two Bangor GPs towards a mentally ill patient and his mother, and the treatment of an elderly patient at Whiteabbey Hospital.

But he stresses: " My purpose isn't to beat up on public servants, but to ensure that we are not complacent, that we actually are as good as we can be every day, and that we deliver the optimum service for the resources that are available."

The Ombudsman also states that public servants "don't always get it wrong, like they don't always get it right", adding: "In the main, every day, they do important and effective work that needs to be recognised."

He says he does get angry in some cases at the way public bodies have behaved.

"I believe complaints can be a source of real insight, intelligence and therefore improvement and should not be treated as some sort of opportunity for being defensive and resentful of people who complain.

" Individuals have the right to expect proper and courteous and dignified responses.

"I often say to doctors and others - people don't understand that you are clinically absolutely outstanding, they don't understand that they have the best operation they could potentially ever have.

"But what they do understand is courtesy, what they do understand is dignity, what they do understand is someone who takes them seriously as a person."

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