Profile: Government’s new watchdog

 Within the first few days of her arrival in the Cayman Islands, Complaints Commissioner Nicola Williams had already picked up on one of the best ways of finding out what’s going on around town.

She rode the bus to work.

“Before I got a car…I was travelling in those little jitney busses as incognito as you can be until your picture is in the paper,” Ms Williams said during a recent interview with the Observer on Sunday. “You can get a real flavour of how people feel, generally speaking, ‘what’s the point in making a complaint because nothing will really change.’”

Embarking on a five year term as Cayman’s second Complaints Commissioner, Ms Williams said she had identified one of the chief tasks set out for her office.

“If, by the end of my time here, I’ve been able to dig that (attitude) out, and that people feel this is an office that they can complain to,” she said. “At least all parties will know that this office has dealt with their matter fairly.”

The Office of the Complaints Commissioner is still a relatively knew agency in the Cayman Islands. The first commissioner, John Epp, was appointed in 2004 after the Complaints Commissioner Law established the agency to investigate residents’ complaints against central government, statutory authorities and government-owned companies.

Ms Williams said she has inherited an office that is an ombudsman’s post “in the truest sense of that word.” The complaints commissioner acts as essentially a last resort, when efforts to resolve a problem with a government agency have failed.

She’s well-suited to deal with the sometimes prickly job, having been a UK barrister and served as an ombudsman in two different agencies that dealt with complaints made against police officers.  

The complaints commissioner makes recommendations to government entities following investigation of certain matters that are either brought to its attention by members of the public, or areas where the commissioner feels a bit more probity is needed.

Following the issuance of a report, the commissioner can either determine a complaint to be unfounded or well-founded. The office can also make findings of maladministration in particular cases where incompetence or even corrupt practices have been uncovered within a government agency.

The commissioner’s job is to make recommendations for change in the policies or procedures of a government entity in cases where a complaint is well-founded. According to the Complaints Commissioner Law, the government agency that recommendations are made to must show those have been followed within a reasonable period of time.

Ms Williams said the timely response to the commissioner’s recommendations will be one of the main goals during her administration.

“I don’t think this office is particularly out of kilter with systems in the UK,” she said. “You’re always in a position where you make recommendations and you want them to be carried out and they aren’t always.”

“I will not be happy if my recommendations are not carried out,” Ms Williams said.

She estimated that recommendations from the complaints commissioner’s office were carried out in a timely manner “about 60 or 70 per cent of the time” during Mr. Epp’s administration.

Ms Williams said there were many delays in the process that may have accounted for that.

“There must be timeliness across the board,” she said. “Timeliness with us as an office, timeliness with government entities…and also I don’t like the idea of reports being tabled and no action being taken on them.”

The Legislative Assembly, which makes complaints commissioner’s reports public, has never discussed any individual report from that office following its presentation to the lawmaking body.

“I’m not going out to deliberately get on the wrong side of people, but having said that, whilst it’s wonderful to be popular and liked, it’s much, much better to be trusted and respected,” Ms Williams said.

“Anyone doing a post like this has to be probing and not afraid to probe…to push it as far as possible.”

One area of concern for the new commissioner included maintaining what she considered minimum staffing levels at the office.

At press time for this article, the complaints commissioner’s office had six positions. The commissioner, deputy commissioner, two investigators/analysts, the commissioner’s assistant and a receptionist. Both analysts, Barrie Quappe and Scott Swing, have left the office and Ms Williams said she was recruiting new hires for those positions.

She said she believed both analyst positions could be filled locally, and wanted to dissuade those of the opinion that the complaints commissioner’s office “was run by expats.”

“This office serves the whole country,” she said.

Ms Williams said she realises government faces a tough budget situation this year, and doubted she would be able to expand the current complement of six staff members. However, she points out that some 400 complaints received by the office last year were handled by just two analysts.

“This office cannot function with less than six people,” Ms Williams said. “For the amount of complaints that we deal with a year, I think this office has done sterling work.”

As far as particular areas she would like the office to go into, Ms Williams said it would depend on the complaints received.

“I don’t think you can say in advance ‘this is what we want to investigate,” she said.

However, Ms Williams points out law enforcement as one area where the complaints commissioner’s office is severely restricted in investigating complaints. While not advocating for the office to handle public complaints made against police, she said an entity does need to be set up to do so in Cayman.

“It is only right that there should be some independent oversight of police complaints,” Ms Williams said. “I’ve met with Commissioner (David) Baines and we’ve had very useful discussions.”

Ms Williams was born in the UK, though her family originally came from the Caribbean region. At the time of the interview, she had only been here three weeks and couldn’t really talk about plans beyond her five year contract term.

“I think the way that the world is now, people don’t see any job as a job for life,” she said.