Picture this: You’re on vacation in Houston, Texas. You’re out sightseeing around town — when suddenly your stomach begins to ache. A chill sweeps over your body. You feel woozy. Luckily, you happen to be across the street from Texas Medical Center, the largest medical complex in the world, including 21 hospitals across 50 million square feet of development. But which institution should you choose? Which specialty? Which doctor? You know you have a problem, and here’s where it can be addressed … But where, specifically, should you go?
What you really need is, yes, a doctor, but first a guide who can point you in the right direction.
The above scenario is similar to what happens when a person encounters any sprawling organization, such as the Cayman Islands government. Currently, if you wish to lodge a formal complaint with or about government, the primary question is: Who do you call?
We at the Compass are lucky because we know everybody and, if necessary, we call everybody.
But many people can’t, don’t, or don’t know how to do that. They dial the main number for the Government Administration Building (949-7900) and hope for the best. Oftentimes the operator transfers them to the wrong department or person, or sometimes to the extensions of people who are retired or dead.
Just like in the massive hospital, what would be extremely helpful is a single person — and a single telephone number that should be as well-known as that of Yellow Cab taxis in Florida (777-7777) – who serves as the universal access point into government, who can steer people toward hope, if not to salvation.
In the best of all possible worlds, that would be the function of the Cayman government’s contemplated Office of the Ombudsman, which would encompass the activities of the (acting) Complaints Commissioner and (acting) Information Commissioner, as well as the (as-yet-nonexistent) police complaints office.
(An aside: We realize that the government’s proposal to merge the individual watchdog bodies may be motivated by the impulse to marginalize those entities, rather than to enhance them, or perhaps is merely a sideshow to distract people from the vastly more significant reforms contained in the EY Report. The annual “cost savings” of the merger, in the low six digits, are so infinitesimal in the context of the billion-plus public sector budget that they are not worth serious discussion. That being said, for the purposes of this editorial, we are confining our discussion to what the ideal Ombudsman could and should be.)
The new Ombudsman will have all the combined responsibilities of those three watchdog entities, and accordingly must carry the combined gravitas. In order to be successful, the Ombudsman must have the independence and the institutional support to become the most feared (even the most hated) person within government, who is able to withstand internal and external pressure from elected members, top officials, the civil service corpus, the public at large, etc. The worst thing that could happen is for government to create a high-ranking Ombudsman position, bring in an eminently qualified person to become Ombudsman, and then back the office halfheartedly.
That’s exactly what happened to former Complaints Commissioner Nicola Williams, whose admirable work was met with nothing but resistance and indifference. That’s also what happened with Operation Cealt (the sorry sequel to Operation Tempura) where serious complaints about law enforcement from scores of individuals were fielded, then swept under a rug and, as far as we can tell, never acted upon.
The new Ombudsman must be equally empowered and empowering — and should be, if not the voice, then at least the ears of the people.
Until a functional Ombudsman is in place and the office telephone installed, we encourage our readers to keep in mind another number – ours at the Compass (949-5111).
You might be surprised to learn how many stories about people’s problems don’t make the newspaper because, just through inquiring and providing information, we manage to get those problems solved.
The Compass may not have any official powers, but we do listen and we do take action. It’s a role, and a responsibility, that we as a news organization embrace.