Being the bad guy: What makes the ombudsman’s job so difficult

Vancouver mayoral candidate and former Vancouver Sun publisher Kirk LaPointe.

Former CBC ombudsman Kirk LaPointe didn’t hesitate when asked to name the one character trait that someone in a top watchdog role – whether for a corporation or government – absolutely must possess to get a difficult jobdone.

Is it better to be thick-skinned? Stubborn? Tenacious?

“You have to have a lot of patience,” LaPointe told Yahoo Canada News.

“A number of people are bringing their complaints with a fair amount of anxiety. You have to sit back. Don’t judge. Get the complaint fully understood and then do your own investigation.”

At the same time, he said, “You have to find a way to make sure you’ve got the buy-in of the institution (you represent). You can’t be seen as an unfair figure who isn’t going to listen to them, as well.”

“It takes a lot more patience than you might imagine.”

LaPointe’s comments come as Toronto ombudsman Fiona Crean announced she’ll be stepping down from her post after five stormy years on the job.

Crean delivered the news on Monday after presenting what is to be her final annual report to city council.

Crean has said she wants to protect what she calls the city’s “office of last resort.” Her voluntary departure heads off her critics on council, who were expected to oppose an extension to her contract in an upcoming debate.

But Crean has also been open about a lack of funding to her office, making it increasingly challenging to do the job she was hired to do. The office has seen a 129 per cent increase in the number of complaints since it opened it doors in 2009.

“While I welcome the additional complaints, I note that the expanded jurisdiction was not accompanied by increased resources. This failure will exacerbate the existing gap in service,” she wrote in the report.

Her last day is expected to be Nov. 16.

As ombudsman for Toronto, it’s been Crean’s job to hear complaints from citizens who feel they have nowhere else to go.

This isn’t about a pot hole outside your house or dogs running off-leash in a public park; the complaints that come before the watchdog office tend to be of a more serious nature.

The office has waded in to protect seniors against unlawful evictions. It prompted system-wide improvements to the way the city handles parking tickets with the aim of helping drivers better understand their options and avoid court, and forced the city’s transit authority to stop using video recordings of disabled passengers using its specialized bus service to assess their eligibility.

In all, the office has handled thousands of complaints and conducted 33 investigations over the past five years, 25 of which were complex, systemic ones, according to the annual report.

But, with the good, there’s no doubt that the role comes with built-in complexities. When it’s your job to snoop into sensitive situations, question accepted practices and challenge those in charge, it’s easy to make enemies.

“It is a very difficult job to do,” said political scientist Zack Taylor, who teaches the city studies program at the University of Toronto.

Toronto is the only city in Canada with a legislated independent ombudsman, which means the office has powers that are separate from elected officials. Other cities, including Montreal, have created ombudsman positions, however they have no separate basis of authority.

Taylor said the role was created following Toronto’s amalgamation to ensure members of the public can make a confidential complaint without fearing they will be punished for speaking out.

In that role, Taylor said Crean has certainly stepped on political toes over the years, but he believes she’s done exactly what the office was set up to do.

“We have this enormous government and there has to be some kind of avenue for ordinary people to stick their hand up and say something is wrong,” he said.

On the whole, he said the office has had “a lot of small but cumulative positive effects” on the city.

LaPointe, who served as CBC ombudsman from 2010 to 2012 and currently leads an international body of media ombudsmen, says that on a practical level, an effective watchdog office can save an organization money by steering people who might otherwise launch a lawsuit out of the courts.

“They deliver value in a very big way,” he said.

More critically, an oversight office can offer a much-needed avenue for both members of the public and officials to understand what’s broken and how the problems can be fixed.

“They are like an honest broker who will independently assess a complaint. That’s not to say that elected officials don’t serve their value on this front, but when the public feels that they were wrongly done by where can they turn?,” said LaPointe.

“In too many cases you end up in the courts when the wisest thing is to have a public representative evaluate the case and make a finding.”