Updated January 11 with civil service reply
The Ombudsman has accused the head of the civil service of trying to undermine his office.
In a letter to the speaker of the house, parliamentary Ombudsman Anthony Mifsud on Tuesday hit out at principal permanent secretary Mario Cutajar and accused him of trying to rein in his investigative work.
He was reacting to the forward in a recent report published by Cutajar which laid out criticisms of the Ombudsman’s work.
“The negative tone of this writing which unjustly attributes alack of transparency and accountability to the institution of the ombudsman is surprising,” Mifsud writes.
“This tone is taken as a reaction, if not a retaliation, to the opinions expressed from time to time by my office which have been critical of shortcomings in the public sector.”
The Office of the Ombudsman is a constitutional authority, answerable to parliament, that is tasked with defending citizens’ rights and investigating their complaints against the public administration.
Addressing a press conference about government action on the ombudsman's work, Cutajar last month fired a barb at over the employment of persons of trust in his office.
The Ombudsman has long criticised the employment of people from outside the civil service on a so-called “position of trust” basis, even questioning if it is in conformity with the constitution.
Cutajar however said the Ombudsman needed to be clearer about his own standards on persons of trust.
“I am informed that he also has people employed on a position of trust basis”, Cutajar told reporters.
Reacting to this and other claims of lack of transparency, Mifsud said he “strongly denies the insinuations and allegations which are considered as attempts to discredit the institution and can only cause harm to public administration.”
Mifsud pointed out that his office was not answerable to Cutajar, but rather to the house of representatives.
“The principal permanent secretary ought to know that the office of the ombudsman is not an extension of the public administration and in no way falls under his scrutiny,” he writes.
Mifsud goes on to say that his office, together with the Auditor-General and the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, are not tools in Cutajar’s hands. Nor are they there to transform the public sector according to Cutajar’s own personal vision.
On the contrary, these institutions are there to ensure that citizens enjoy their right to proper public administration.
“They are not, therefore, institutions meant to implement policies of the government of the day,” Mifsud writes.
On a positive note, the Ombudsman said that Cutajar’s criticism renewed his office’s determination to continue working in citizens’ best interests to improve the public sector’s performance.
He concluded by suggesting a number of reforms that would further ensure the autonomy of his office and that of the NAO and standards chief.
Civil service replies
In a right of reply, the Department of Information said that the Ombudsman was avoiding proposals that would introduce standard operating policies for that office, among others.
"The Ombudsman’s office took a full thirty-one days to try to justify how the scrutiny of the Public Administration equates to an exercise in good governance and accountability while a call for more transparency and accountability on the Ombudsman’s office part amounts to a ‘direct frontal attack’ against this institution.
"For clarification’s sake, the Public Administration has put forward proposals so that all constitutional overseeing institutions (and not only the Ombudsman) should have clear, transparent, well-defined, and publicly known procedures about their own standard operating policies along with the recruitment of staff (which includes consultants/persons of trust) into their fold.
"The Office of the Ombudsman not only skirted but was oblivious to these proposals and whether these ought to be included in the legal amendments his Office would like to see implemented in the Ombudsman Act.
"Akin to the public administration, shouldn’t the constitutional overseers also have deadlines on how long they should take to reply to citizens’ cases? Currently, the Public Administration has been waiting for two to five years on more than twenty cases for the Office of the Ombudsman to provide a definitive reply to act upon.
"Shouldn’t the Office of the Ombudsman have a clear policy to those seeking its services on what complaints can be investigated by the Ombudsman? Indeed, in 2020, a quarter of the cases submitted their case to the Ombudsman without first trying to find a remedial solution from the public administration.
"Should the Office of the Ombudsman be a customer care service provider or the overseer of the Public Administration?
"The Public Administration is also proposing that the Ombudsman’s recommendations are to be based on facts. The Public Administration has very clear instructions that recommendations submitted by constitutional bodies, like the Office of the Ombudsman, should be accepted and implemented as long as the recommendations do not go against the law or entrenched policies.
"At a time when the Ombudsman’s recommendations were left unheeded year in, year out, there were no utterances against the Public Administration. Nowadays, when the implementation rate of the Ombudsman’s recommendations is entirely documented, made public and stands at 98%, the Public Administration is being recriminated against as being offensive.
"All ‘Governance Action’ publications are based on facts and are well-documented, and the Public Administration will be more than ready to present Mr Speaker with the documented facts."
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