Government should be more responsive to complaints, report warns

Delays and, in some cases, outright failure to respond to public concerns were highlighted by investigators as key issues, following 59 complaints of “maladministration” by government departments in 2020.

Both the Labour Appeals Tribunal, which assesses unfair dismissal claims, and the Public Transport Unit were cited for unreasonable delays by the Ombudsman.

The office highlighted such delays as “recurring themes” in the cases it examined in 2020. The annual report notes that the complaints are often quickly resolved, once the Ombudsman gets involved.

“Time and time again, members of the public come to us for assistance in getting a response to their complaint,” Ombudsman Sandy Hermiston stated.

“Their trust in government is undermined when we are able to make a phone call, or send an email, and suddenly their complaint is acknowledged and often resolved.”

- Advertisement -

People should not need to contact the Ombudsman to obtain such basic services from government, the report states.

“I encourage the government to review its internal complaints mechanisms to ensure that they are agile and fit for purpose. Complaints should be welcomed as customer feedback – a valuable source of information on how to serve people better,” Hermiston added.

The report highlights concerns about unlawful delays and inadequate communication from a number of departments.

The Public Transport Unit failed to address four complaints from a member of the public and ultimately provided a response that was inadequate, the Ombudsman ruled.

The unit was asked to issue an apology and establish new internal processes for how such complaints are handled.

“We found that the process to lodge a complaint with the PTU was not properly documented, not readily available and far too onerous,” the report states.

The Ombudsman also handled complaints about delays in decisions from the Labour Tribunal and the Labour Appeals Tribunal. Investigators found the appeals tribunal had consistently breached statutory time limits for issuing its decisions, sometimes by as much as two years.

The Department of Labour and Pensions was directed to ensure adequate staffing to address a backlog of appeals and both tribunals were asked to consider implementing virtual meeting technology to help deal with the delays.

The Needs Assessment Unit was also investigated following a complaint from an individual about the level of public housing and welfare support she was receiving.

“She stated that the NAU was denying her the additional financial assistance for rental support that she was due as an elderly and disabled person and had improperly cancelled her financial support for temporary hotel accommodation. Owing to her age and state of health, she was deemed to be at high risk should she contract COVID-19, and she was left homeless sleeping in her car,” a summary of the case in the annual report states.

The Ombudsman “acted quickly” and the woman was found housing within six weeks, the report states. It adds that she was eligible for additional public housing support and that the NAU had not adequately explained its decision to deny assistance.

“We recommended that the NAU review and update its public housing policies regarding elderly and indigent clients. We also reminded the NAU of the requirement to provide written reasons for its decisions under section 19 of the Constitution Order 2009, Bill of Rights,” the report states.

As well as the formal investigations, the Ombudsman was able to resolve a number of other complaints by mediating between the parties or through a swift decision based on the information provided. These included a complaint about exemptions to the “stay home Cayman” policy order issued through the ‘Curfew Time’ department set up during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Investigators launched an inquiry following complaints from a businessman who was not granted an exemption to the restrictions on movement. After requesting further information on the curfew operating procedures, the Ombudsman determined the decision had been fair.

“Following a review of the documentation for these procedures, we were satisfied that the policies had been set out as clearly as possible in this very unusual and difficult situation,” the report notes.

It adds that the number of annual complaints has remained steady for the past few years but more complaints are now being resolved without the need for a formal investigation.

“We were able to informally resolve a greater number of these complaints than in previous years, which is a testament to the cooperation demonstrated by the civil service.”

It adds that better policies and procedures are needed in some areas to ensure consistent application of laws and adequate delivery of services.

“Our office has identified a lack of policies as a significant shortcoming for many government departments and continues to encourage development of these written documents,” the report said.

- Advertisement -

Support local journalism. Subscribe to the all-access pass for the Cayman Compass.

Subscribe now