‘Organise oversight!’ This is the title of the third joint annual report published by the National Ombudsman, the Ombudsman for Children and the Ombudsman for Veterans, and presented to parliament today by the National Ombudsman, Reinier van Zutphen. The way in which we as a society have organised our public services has become very complex in recent years. Not least for our citizens. They are expected to take a more active role and to organise things for themselves. But how they should go about this and who they can turn to for help or support is often unclear. There is a lack of clear guidance and structure. The Ombudsman has appealed to parliament to make smart and clear choices so that policy and implementation are future-proof. That way everyone will know where they stand, today and tomorrow.
In recent years, a major shift towards decentralisation has been implemented with the aim of bringing the government closer to its citizens. In 2019, the National Ombudsman, the Ombudsman for Children and the Ombudsman for Veterans found that this is not yet the case. In fact, the distance between the government and its citizens seems to have increased rather than decreased. Reinier van Zutphen explains, “In almost every field in which we are active, we found evidence of a lack of structure and clarity. Not only the citizens themselves, but also local and regional authorities, lack clear guidance or the opportunity to influence their situation. And if municipalities outsource certain tasks to other organisations, many in the private sector, where does the ultimate responsibility lie? As a result, people find themselves dealing with a different kind of government, one they no longer feel they know. This calls for a government that can provide clarity and structure.”
Citizens are entitled to proper treatment
Citizens are entitled to proper treatment, even in areas where the government no longer provides direct support. It is precisely by focusing on the propriety of government action that the National Ombudsman is able to call government bodies to account in cases where they seem to have lost sight of citizens’ interests. This also means that the National Ombudsman has a role to play when public services for the common good are provided by third parties, private sector or otherwise. That role is to continue helping people to find the assistance and support they need and to consistently remind the government of its responsibilities. For the Ombudsman for Children, the Convention on the Rights of the Child provides the ethical compass; for the Ombudsman for Veterans it is the special duty of care. This is how we come to the aid of citizens, veterans and children who encounter problems in their dealings with government agencies and other organisations.
Today, citizens and politicians expect more from the government than ever before. Problems often turn out to be highly complex and not limited to a single field. The government seems to be overwhelmed by the continually growing number of new policy questions. In order to meet expectations while delivering quality in the future, choices need to be made. Above all, people want honest and simple answers which show that the government understands their needs. The last thing they want is for things to become more complicated. But it often seems as if the government’s knee-jerk response is to make things more complicated rather than simpler when faced with new questions, priorities or technical possibilities. And, if the implementation becomes too complex, to demand a special complaints officer or an expert committee be appointed to solve the problems.
A call for clarity
The National Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children are therefore making a fourfold appeal to politicians, administrators and executives:
- Be honest about what the government does and does not do. Be transparent about the role of government and that of the citizen in specific situations.
- Trust your citizens. The government is expecting more and more from its citizens, yet often fails to give them the options or the trust to organise things for themselves. A mistake is easily made. The government is there to help in such cases, not to impose sanctions that only make the problems worse.
- Put the child’s best interests first in all life decisions and involve the child in the decision-making process. The central question is: what does this child need and how are we going to make it happen?
- Provide clarity, guidance and structure! Make smart and clear choices so that policy and implementation are future-proof. That way everyone will know where they stand, now and in the future.
This annual report covers the year 2019: the year before the coronavirus transformed life throughout the world at a single stroke. We greatly appreciate the tremendous efforts being made by central government, municipalities, healthcare professionals, emergency services, the business community and many others in the Netherlands and beyond in dealing with the corona crisis. Within a short timeframe, unprecedented steps have been taken to protect the health and safety of the Dutch people, but also to safeguard the economic position of individual citizens and businesses, and to ensure social cohesion. It is an achievement that shows creativity and decisiveness. But even in the current situation, we will continue to perform our duty of drawing attention to the needs of those most deeply affected, such as small businesses, children, the elderly, informal caregivers and veterans. It is essential that the measures taken by the government at this time are as effective as possible when it comes to helping those in need.
In this video National Ombudsman and Ombudsman for Veterans Reinier van Zutphen outlines the main points of the joint annual report.