All three eminent gentlemen who have occupied the post of ombudsman since it was unanimously set up by parliament 26 years ago have crossed swords with the government.

Former Nationalist prime minister Eddie Fenech Adami had accused the first ombudsman, Joe Sammut, a former head of the civil service, of losing his sense of fairness. This followed a newspaper interview in which Sammut had, among others, described an army promotions exercise as “a mess” and included remarks which Fenech Adami deemed arrogant and, at times, political.

Sammut’s successor, former chief justice Joseph Said Pullicino, became engaged in a bitter dispute with then home affairs minister Manwel Mallia on whether the ombudsman was empowered to look into complaints made by military officers, as Said Pullicino had tried to. The matter ended up in court and he was vindicated.

The incumbent ombudsman, Anthony Mifsud, who took over in 2016 following a successful stint as auditor general, has his own problems with the public administration, complaining of being shown “lack of respect”.

All three were always careful to ensure they made sound arguments in reaching their conclusions. However, governments do not like being told how they should be acting. They are prone to defend themselves against accusations of ignoring the ombudsman’s recommendations by quoting figures. Fenech Adami did it in 2002 and the department of information is doing it now.

Never mind the quality, it is the numbers that matter, they seem to be arguing. And they’re even disputing numbers that put their own narrative in doubt. Times of Malta reported that more than a quarter of the reports compiled by the ombudsman since 2018 have been ignored. This resulted from figures coming directly from the office of the ombudsman.

No, the department of information, the government’s loyal mouthpiece, replied. Only 1.5 per cent of the recommendations made by the ombudsman in the period under review remained unimplemented.

The ombudsman and the government evidently use different yardsticks to judge results. That cannot be right. Citizens consider the ombudsman to be the ultimate bulwark in terms of administrative review. They need clarity about the extent of his power to get the public administration to put right any occurrences of unfairness or maladministration.

The two sides – ombudsman and public administration – need to sit around a table and, rather than agreeing to disagree, devise a system that ensures the former’s recommendations to the public service are implemented and do not remain a paper exercise. A definition accepted by both sides of what constitutes a ‘recommendation’ may also be in order.

Another worrying aspect emerges from the department of information’s reaction. The government appears to find solace in the fact that cases referred to the ombudsman amount to only 0.003 per cent of the estimated 13 million transactions that happen annually in relation to over 2,000 government services on offer.

This is a flimsy argument, coming from a government that continuously boasts of putting the citizen first and of leaving no stone unturned to make their lives better. Just one citizen let down by a costly system that is supposedly there to serve citizens is one too many. The number of recommendations that have not been implemented is an indictment on those charged with the smooth running and delivery of public services.

It is time for the Ombudsman Act to be reviewed. As the present ombudsman has lamented, a law that was meant to be a final safeguard for aggrieved citizens, providing them with redress against injustice, is proving to be ineffective. This situation needs to be remedied.

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