NEWS

As the office of ombudsman gains acceptance, Greeks introduce the institution to other fields

«Complain to the Ombudsman» is gradually replacing that happy phrase, «Tell the mayor,» as the independent administrative authority for settling differences out of court acquires an ever-expanding role throughout Europe. Besides public administration, the institution now deals with a number of sectors, including health, consumer affairs, the market, banks, local administration, immigration, the army and tourism. Are ombudsmen simply a politically correct trend of the times or are they the result of a deeply felt social need? Is one general ombudsman sufficient, or do we need several ombudsmen for all aspects of daily existence and people’s dealings with the state? But while the aims and usefulness of many ombudsmen find as many skeptics as advocates, the adoption and spread of the institution certainly characterizes the times, both in Greece and Europe. The Greek experience The Greek Ombudsman has trained its sights on many of the ills besetting the state administration, such as extensive corruption, bureaucracy, deficiencies in infrastructure and other problems, to a great degree without citizens having recourse to the courts. But many people abused the institution, with the result that the Greek Ombudsman had to deal with cases that did not fall within its competence, or with complaints that had slight cause. A consumer’s ombudsman is now in the offing, following the establishment of the Greek Ombudsman and the banking mediation service. The Ministry of Development is already examining a draft bill which will probably be brought before Parliament in summer. There are also plans for other ombudsmen, such as those for tourists and soldiers. The Children’s Rights Ombudsman already functions as a separate entity within the Greek Ombudsman, headed by the ombudsman himself, Giorgos Kaminis. In Europe In other European countries, ombudsmen are multiplying and specializing in many different areas. Great Britain is a typical example, where, apart from the overall authority, there are three regional ombudsmen and others for health, local administration, Northern Ireland, banks, insurance and even funeral services. In Germany, there are ombudsmen for the armed forces, state and local administration. In Sweden, there is a migrant’s ombudsman as well as the general authority. Finland, Denmark and Portugal only have one apiece. Italy has 16 regional and one general ombudsmen; the corresponding figure for Spain is seven and one, while France has only three (one general and two local). There are three institutional models: the first, which is gradually being abandoned and exists only in small states, consists of one ombudsman for all matters; the second is the decentralized model with numerous regional, local and sectoral ombudsmen; and the third is a combination of the two (with one overarching authority and a small number of ombudsmen that have specific areas of competence). «There is a clear trend for greater specialization, and I don’t find anything wrong with this,» Kathimerini was told by Antonis Makrydimitris, professor of administrative science at the University of Athens and adviser to the prime minister on public administration matters. «I feel that the adoption of several ombudsmen in Greece not only would do no harm, but would probably be a positive step. Moreover, one ombudsman cannot possibly deal with all issues. I would find useful ombudsmen for consumers, soldiers, immigrants, patients, students and generally one ombudsman for every problematic sector. I have already suggested that there be an ombudsman for health matters and local administration.» Increasing the number of ombudsmen and restricting them to special sectors does not find the ombudsman himself, Giorgos Kaminis, wholly in agreement. He emphasized that legislators needed to intervene with the utmost delicacy in order to cover the gaps where these indeed exist. «The point is not to create additional mechanisms for monitoring the state administration which might confuse people,» he said. He inclines to the creation of an ombudsman who would intervene in the private sector, which is expanding daily as the state is gradually deregulated. «Private entrepreneurs are now active in sectors where the state had a monopoly, for example in the provision of health or insurance services. In those sectors, consumer protection falls short.» Kaminis proposes using the model of the bank mediation service, which has been operating successfully for some years, following the almost total privatization of the banking sector. Multiplying the number of ombudsmen, he felt, «not only causes confusion among people but degrades the high symbolic value of the image of a united, independent administrative authority, both in the eyes of citizens and public administration. «One school of thought says that creating a number of highly specialized mechanisms for monitoring public administration would help solve its problems. «Recently, various monitoring mechanisms have been set up, the so-called inspectors of health, the environment and prisons, among others. There is even an inspectorate for inspectors: the public administration’s inspector-general. This has created a whole series of inspectorates with overlapping responsibilities and doubtful results. It would be a mistake to repeat this at the level of independent intercessionary authorities as well.» Kaminis also pointed out that «the institutions are also subject to a dire financial logic. The situation in Greece makes administrative reform an overriding priority. «As a result, dividing up monitoring powers between the ombudsman and local administration would probably render ombudsmen ineffectual, to citizens’ detriment.» Consumer advocate will work on seven basic principles The complexities of taking legal action often deter consumers from pursuing their rights, something the new institution of the consumer affairs ombudsman seeks to redress. The independent administrative authority will rest on seven basic principles: independence, transparency, listening to both sides, effectiveness, legality, freedom and representation. The consumer’s advocate has been introduced as a non-judicial instrument to solve consumer disputes by consensus. The aim is to support just demands by consumers and the consumer movement in both the private and public sectors. «We want to give substance to the new institution so that it is not another bureaucratic mechanism,» said the consumer affairs’ general secretary, Thanassis Skordas. «We will try and marry all the factors that work in the rest of Europe and adapt them to Greek circumstances, creating an ombudsman who will give immediate and practical solutions.» Prefectural committees settling consumer disputes, set up by Article 11 of Law 2251/1994, will be subject to the body. «These committees were unable to impose sanctions and degenerated into toothless bodies because they did not have paid staff, so there wasn’t the corresponding interest,» Skordas told Kathimerini. The Development Ministry will hear the proposals and views of consumer organizations until June 30, so that it can submit the bill to the summer Parliament. «We have discussed it with the Development Ministry and we are basically positive,» said Consumer Institute (INKA) President Haralambos Kouris, adding: «The issue is to maintain a balance between the consumer and the market, so as to uphold the rights of one without giving in to irrational demands from the other.» The president of the Greek Quality of Life Consumer Union (EKPOIZO), Panayiota Kalapotharakou, believes the new body will make up for the lack of market supervision.