Proper oversight of our civil servants.

Context The Policy & Resources Committee’s proposal to reject the idea of a Public Services Ombudsperson (PSO) for Guernsey is made in a detailed policy letter1.

This letter assesses the proposal to establish a PSO, examining its potential benefits and drawbacks, including financial implications and the possibility of collaboration with Jersey. This initiative stems from the pressing need to reform the existing, inadequate public service complaint mechanisms, marked by complexity, inefficiency, and a lack of independence.

Committee’s Position. Upon analysis, the Committee concluded that the prevailing economic circumstances do not support the establishment of a PSO, whether in partnership with Jersey or exclusively for Guernsey. This decision ostensibly reflects a priority to efficiently allocate resources and manage financial constraints, rather than a conclusive assessment of the current complaint resolution system.

Counter Argument: Imperative Need for a PSO. Despite the Committee’s view, there is a compelling argument for the essential need for a PSO in Guernsey.

  1. Shortcomings of the Review Board: A Review Board, tasked with handling public service complaints, cannot overturn decisions. This limitation significantly impairs its effectiveness, especially when confronting an unyielding civil service, rendering a Review Board largely ineffective in providing genuine redress for grievances.
  2. Concerns About Impartiality: In Guernsey’s close-knit community, any Review Board’s impartiality is open to question due to potential conflicts of interest and biases. Such scepticism undermines public trust in the fairness of the complaint resolution process.
  3. Disclosure obligations: There are no obligations to disclose evidence from the Civil Service during review proceedings, and the Review Board does not demand disclosure. The two tools available to an aggrieved party are the code for releasing information (Guernsey does not have a Freedom of Information Law) and a Data Subject Access Request – and in my case, the CS tried to maintain that the only information that they have to release to me was my name and address only. (I expand on this here)
  4. Competence and External Influence on the Review Board: A Review Board’s potential lack of expertise in complex issues is a critical factor in effective complaint resolution. Its susceptibility to external influences further compromises the objectivity and effectiveness of its decisions.
  5. Independent Oversight Requirement: A Review Board’s inadequacies highlight the need for an independent oversight body like a PSO. A PSO, endowed with broader authority and autonomy, would more effectively address public service complaints.
  6. Boosting Public Trust and Accountability: An autonomous PSO would strengthen public confidence through impartial and equitable decision-making. This would enhance the accountability of public services, ensuring decisions are based on merit and fairness, not influenced by personal or political ties.
  7. Adherence to International Standards: Introducing a PSO aligns with international best practices, increasing the credibility and reliability of the complaint-handling system. It offers a critical avenue for appeal and review, key to maintaining public confidence in public services.
  8. Lack of Oversight and Its Consequences: The absence of proper oversight of the civil service leads to sub-optimal behaviour that often goes unchallenged and unrectified. This lack of accountability results in practices that are not only detrimental to the service quality but also incur significant costs for both the taxpayer and the aggrieved parties. The establishment of a PSO would provide a much-needed mechanism to identify, address, and prevent such inefficiencies, ultimately reducing the financial and social burden on the community.
  9. Financial Imperative for a PSO in Guernsey: In the contemporary world, establishing a Public Services Ombudsperson (PSO) in Guernsey is not merely a choice; it’s a financial imperative and a fundamental aspect of conducting business. The cost of implementing a PSO should be viewed as an essential investment in the health of our civil services and the well-being of our community. In an era where accountability and transparency are non-negotiable standards in public service, the absence of an independent oversight body such as a PSO is a glaring omission that Guernsey can ill afford. The financial burden of unresolved complaints, administrative inefficiencies, and the erosion of public trust far outweigh the initial investment in establishing a PSO. Thus, it’s not just about adhering to modern standards but also about recognising the PSO as a necessary component in the efficient functioning of our civil services, ultimately saving costs and enhancing public confidence.
  10. Relative cost: Given the cost of the PSO is estimated to be £215,000 for Guernsey alone and the total income for Guernsey in 2021 was £574,206,0002, the cost would be 0.037% of total income. Cost = (£215,000 / £574,206,000) × 100.
  11. Economic Justification for a PSO: Considering Guernsey’s budget of approximately £500 million, the necessity for a Public Services Ombudsperson becomes logical and economically sound. With the proposed cost of a PSO being a mere fraction of the total income — specifically, 0.037% — it is reasonable to assert that the presence of an independent PSO would likely save more than its operational costs. The cost of £215,000 for a Guernsey-only PSO, when weighed against the potential for increased efficiency, enhanced public trust, and reduced wastage in public services, presents a compelling economic argument. In the broader context of maintaining high standards in public service, this investment is minimal compared to the benefits it can yield, making the decision to establish a PSO financially prudent and necessary for Guernsey’s modern governance.

Why do I care & why does this matter? In a recent quest for justice against the poor conduct of Guernsey’s civil service, I faced a system rife with flaws. I provided irrefutable evidence in a seemingly rare review case (according to the State’s website, the first in 5 years), evidence that logically should have been decisive. Yet, in a perplexing turn of events, the Review Board disregarded this key evidence. This was particularly striking as it fell squarely within their stipulated terms of reference set when they asked the Civil Service to re-examine my complaint. The evidence was avoided in the Civil Service commissioned re-investigation which the Review Board requested them to make (which also had multiple errors of fact that further skewed the findings to the benefit of the Civil Service). The Review Board turned a blind eye, the Civil Service walked away unreprimanded. The unjustifiable actions of the Civil Service that I complained of lost me more than £300k. This experience compels me to question whether sometimes a Review Board exists merely to give an illusion of justice, rather than delivering any actual justice.

As one person challenging a larger system, this ordeal starkly illuminates the shortcomings of our local review process in Guernsey. It highlights an urgent need for a system that genuinely engages with the evidence and delivers fair judgment.

Cultural environment: If our Civil Service does not wish for accountability and transparency – a notion that is becoming increasingly apparent – it represents a significant concern from a public interest perspective. Directly addressing these problems could dramatically improve public service delivery and reduce costs. Private discussions have unearthed a disturbing trend: initial mistakes are often born of incompetence, but what follows is a direct and deliberate cover-up. The motive behind these cover-ups appears linked to a chain of accountability that reaches the upper echelons, where senior officers, intent on retaining their positions, play a pivotal role. Guernsey needs to implement robust, properly independent oversight for investigating complaints about its civil service; a PSO is an obvious, tried and tested route.

If the civil service in Guernsey operates with integrity and propriety, the establishment of a PSO should pose no threat. Indeed, a PSO’s role in fostering transparency and accountability should be welcomed, as it reinforces a commitment to ethical governance. Resistance to such oversight might raise questions, suggesting that there are behaviors or decisions that require concealment. The presence of a PSO, therefore, acts as a litmus test for the civil service’s adherence to high standards of conduct. Only those with misconduct to hide would find reason to oppose the scrutiny and impartial investigation an ombudsperson would provide.

Conclusion: Although the Committee acknowledges the potential advantages of a PSO, it currently advises against its formation due to financial and complexity-related constraints, particularly concerning health-related complaints. However, the existing limitations of a  Review Board, especially its inability to reverse decisions and its perceived lack of impartiality, combined with the consequences of inadequate civil service oversight, underscore the critical need for an independent PSO in Guernsey. Such an entity would markedly improve the process’s effectiveness, fairness, and public perception, ensuring competent and unbiased handling of complex public service complaints, and mitigating costly inefficiencies.

The situation is also discussed in this article on the BBC’s website and on the Office of the Data Protection Authority (ODPA) website here.

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