When a member of the public approaches the National Ombudsman, the first point of contact is the ‘Ombudsplein’. This department is staffed by a close-knit team of professional complaints assessors. All have two things in common. First, they are good listeners. Second, they think in terms of solutions rather than problems. We visit the nerve centre of the National Ombudsman organisation.
Each year, the National Ombudsman receives some 25,000 queries and complaints. Some concern dealings with ministries or local authorities, others relate to public sector bodies such as the Employee Insurance Agency (UWV), the Tax and Customs Administration or the police. In the first instance, all queries and complaints are assessed by the staff of the Ombudsplein.
Anyone with a problem involving a public sector organisation can contact a complaints assessor directly, either by phone or through the National Ombudsman’s website. The site also includes a ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ section which can often point users in the right direction.
When dealing with phone calls, the complaints assessors always think in terms of solutions. If the complaint does not concern a public sector authority, and therefore falls outside the National Ombudsman’s remit, they will always try to refer the caller to a more appropriate source of assistance.
The complaints assessors of the Ombudsplein work in multidisciplinary teams. A complainant will therefore quickly be put through to someone with relevant specialist knowledge. Areas of expertise include taxation, mobility, healthcare, police procedures, and many others.
Based on their expertise and experience, the staff of the Ombudsplein understand the complainant’s point of view. Complaints assessors have an extensive network and direct contacts within the vast majority of public sector organisations. This often helps them to resolve issues extremely quickly.
The corona crisis
It has been ‘business as usual’ for the National Ombudsman throughout the corona crisis. The telephone team remains on duty to field calls from the public. Many recent complaints have been directly related to the government’s corona measures. A number of people asked whether they should have to continue paying towards care services when those services had been seriously curtailed during the lockdown. There was also a notable increase in the number of small businesses seeking the National Ombudsman’s help.
Usually, all Ombudsplein staff work at the offices in The Hague. During the pandemic however, most complaints assessors have been working from home. They include
Mohamad Alhadjri, who says: “The only thing that has really changed is that we no longer see our colleagues face-to-face every day. Our work is unaffected. We can do absolutely everything at home that we would usually do in the office. That is all thanks to the sterling efforts of the ICT team. Everyone has remained fully accessible, both online and by phone. The people who contact us greatly appreciate this.”
Health and care services
During the first corona lockdown, the National Ombudsman received several complaints from people who had been required to pay the regular personal contribution for care services. For several months in early 2020, however, it was virtually impossible for local authorities to provide the usual level of support. Many citizens therefore queried why they should be expected to pay for something they had not received, especially given that their informal carers had to work even harder to make up the shortfall. These complaints prompted the National Ombudsman to request clarification from the Minister of Health and Welfare (VWS).
The National Ombudsman also received a large number of complaints about the government’s financial support measures for businesses. In the first instance, it seemed that many self-employed entrepreneurs would lose out altogether because they did not meet the conditions. Some complaints related to the speed with which applications for support were rejected. Eventually, appropriate measures were put in place for the majority of small businesses and we received far fewer complaints during the second corona wave.
To prevent people falling into further debt unnecessarily, the National Ombudsman has on several occasions urged the government to exercise restraint when collecting taxes and other payments, especially in the case of small businesses and people with a lower income.
Gratitude over the phone
Mohamad Alhadjri (40) has been complaints assessor and researcher with the National Ombudsman for over fifteen years. Having studied Management, Economics and Law at The Hague University of Applied Sciences, he is now primarily concerned with complaints relating to taxation and allowances. In 2017, he was part of the research team responsible for the report, No Powerplay but Fair Play, which deals with the Dutch childcare benefits scandal.
You have been with the National Ombudsman since 2006. What part of your work do you find most satisfying?
“For me, it is the social and societal impact of what we do. Our investigations and the resultant reports, with their recommendations for the ministries concerned, improve the lives of literally thousands of people.”
What qualities does a complaints assessor need?
“The first requirement is a listening ear. But overall, it’s the content of a complaint or query that matters, so it is important that the caller can speak to someone who really understands matters.”
The National Ombudsman exists to resolve complaints about ‘poor’ governance. What does this mean in practice?
“The Ombudsman has produced a ‘Guide to Good Governance’ which can be regarded as a sort of Code of Conduct for all public sector authorities. It is based on a number of key values. Government authorities must be open and transparent. They must be respectful and engaged. Public sector officials should be willing to seek solutions. Last but not least, government must be honest and reliable. These are the basic principles by which we assess all complaints. In doing so, we must be able to appreciate the citizen’s perspective and see the issues from his or her point of view.”
In 2017, you were part of the three-person team which conducted an investigation into the childcare allowance scandal. How did you approach the task?
“It was very much a hands-on project. First, we met with representatives of the Tax Administration, the director of the organisation through which parents had arranged childcare, and the lawyer representing some of the parents who had been wrongly accused of fraud. We then submitted a list of written questions to the Tax Administration. The sum result was the report, ‘No Powerplay but Fair Play’. It is still being cited with some regularity by politicians and policy-makers, which illustrates the important function that the National Ombudsman performs.”
Are people grateful for your help?
“Definitely. You can sense the gratitude over the phone. We are regularly sent flowers or a cake as a thank-you gift. It is often the more senior members of the community who like to express their gratitude in this way. I think it is very nice of them.”