What’s an ombudsperson?

News Provincial

Kim Carter leads a staff of superheroes. Carter is the B.C. ombudsperson: a post with a mandate and long history of protecting fairness for everyday people. The ombudsperson office in British Columbia is one of nine provincial ombudsman or ombudsperson offices. Most ombuds offices are called “ombudsman” which is a Swedish term; here in British Columbia we changed it to ensure there was no risk of a lack of gender neutrality. Established in 1979, Carter says the B.C. Office of the Ombudsperson is a place people may come when they feel wronged by a provincial public authority. The office works to find a resolution that’s fair to everyone concerned.

“Most of our complaints come in by phone, about 80 per cent—when people call our office, there’s actually a real person on the phone,” says Carter. “There are about seven people [working in the intake office], and they’re busy. If somebody calls and it’s not something we can help with, then happily they’ve got quite a bit of experience, so they can usually refer them somewhere that might be useful.”

The B.C. ombudsperson has wide jurisdiction. People can call the office with specific concerns relating to public post-secondary institutions; student loans; provincial ministries; provincial boards such as Work Safe B.C.; provincial crown corporations such as B.C. Hydro, ICBC and the Lottery Corporation; local governments; health authorities; and also a number of self-regulating professions or government-regulated occupational boards, so everything from the Law Society through to the real estate council that regulates real estate agents.

“Investigations are confidential,” says Carter. “Our services, probably of interest in particular to students, are of no cost to the person who comes to us. They’re paid for by the people of British Columbia. If one person comes to us with a problem, then if other people are affected, we’ll look at trying to get the resolution for everybody.”

For example, last year, a teacher called to say she’d not been reimbursed her one-year fee for a program discontinued halfway through the year. “When we sorted it out for her, there were 1 300 other people who hadn’t come to our office,” says Carter, so those people also benefitted from the resolution. In another case, one person’s complaint about overpayment of a hydro bill resulted in reimbursements for 580 people, for a total of $114 000.

As Carter puts it, “I have power to obtain information, all the information—not just the information with lots of black lines through it. Which as a journalist you’ll be familiar with . . . In my office, our staff gets the interesting bits as well. So we can really dig into something. And I don’t have the power to make orders, but I do have the power to, it’s called to consult, which means people have to talk to me at the highest levels. I also have the power to make problems and situations public.”

She says that the openness and transparency wielded by her office has significant power in getting things resolved. In its latest annual report, released June 18, the B.C. ombudsperson office reported several student-related cases. They helped one student get StudentAid B.C. to reconsider her loan application appeal and also prompted the Ministry of Finance to revisit its credit reporting on B.C. student loans after another student was denied a loan, even though she’d repaid her previous overaward in full.

Resolutions often include long-term improvements affecting many people, like policy, program and legislative changes. However, Carter says, “There really is a democratic right to be treated fairly by government authorities. So even if it’s just that person, if there’s an unfairness there that we identify, then we will work to get that resolved fairly.” This perspective is refreshing to people who’ve found frustration elsewhere. “It’s a little like having real people on the telephone, so you can talk to them,” says Carter.

Carter was appointed to her position by a committee of the legislative assembly. The committee had to have both government and opposition members and come to a unanimous recommendation. Carter was previously a military lawyer for 20 years, then a military judge, and finally chief military judge before leaving the forces for her current post.

The UVic community also has its own impartial, independent and confidential ombudsperson office. “We have colleagues who aren’t in the statutory office,” says Carter. “We have colleagues within institutions, and you’ve got Martine Conway at UVic, who’s your internal ombuds. She is an example of a very active, very well-respected institutional ombudsperson.”

UVic Ombudsperson Martine Conway says her office has a mandate centered on student issues. People ask her for a confidential consultation and coaching to deal with the issue themselves, she says, or to problem-solve or review their situation. “Questions brought to the office extend to academic, administrative and other aspects of student life,” she wrote in an email interview.

“The ombudsperson is often a bridge between an individual and the organization, helping the person resolve an issue and the institution live up to its policies and values,” writes Conway. “So the challenges and rewards of the role are tied together: they come from helping people—students, staff, faculty and administrators — listen to each other differently and find improved solutions.”