Ombudsman out to inform public of rights

European Ombudsman Nikiforos Diamandouros has been in Greece since last Friday. It’s one stop in a tour of all EU states, aimed, as he said, «at informing Europeans about the rights they have, either as individuals or as legal entities, and which stem from their second nationality, their European nationality.» While here, he will meet with the Greek president, prime minister, parliamentary speaker, leaders of political parties, judicial authorities and social agencies. After five years as Ombudsman in Greece and as many more in the leading post of European Ombudsman, are you satisfied? Yes, I can say I am satisfied on many levels. It depends, of course, what you compare it with. At the national level, my satisfaction is linked to the complete freedom I was given to staff the institution strictly according to merit, and to build, with my colleagues, an institution that I think gradually won the trust of Greeks and became accepted by the Greek public administration. And that, for a person who considers himself not only an academic but also an active citizen, gave great satisfaction. Now, at the European level, that satisfaction has grown. Given that European administration has been formed on meritocratic criteria and is thus of high quality, the extent of acceptance and agreement is much greater. So you have the feeling that you are part of a broader institutional framework which is trying both to improve public administration and serve the public. So ombudsmen have made a difference? I believe the institution does make some difference. I wouldn’t say a major difference, because nobody can say it does that on its own. But it is important to see that you do your institutional or personal bit to improve the everyday life of the public. Many people see the institution of the ombudsman, who cannot enforce rulings, as no more than an alibi for the system. I don’t accept that. It is a fact that throughout the European Union the ombudsman does not have the right to issue binding decisions and so one might argue that it is an institution without teeth that indeed functions as a fig leaf. But if you look at the institution from a different point of view, or from the distorted angle of a political scientist like myself, then you would say that the ombudsman should be seen as an auxiliary body that is however separate from the courts. Is the idea that we should not always take everything to court? Precisely. Legality is one thing, and correct or decent administration is another. Although by definition an illegal practice is bad administration, the reverse does not apply. You can’t go to court and accuse Diamandouros or some public servant of speaking rudely. There’s no law against it. But the ombudsman enables citizens to resolve a series of serious problems that arise in their everyday dealings with the administration but which don’t necessarily create legal issues. The existence of the ombudsman obliges the individual to make what is often a difficult decision, to think about it and decide. For example, if someone seeks compensation of 1 million euros, they’ll go to court. But if they want an apology or some small compensation from the administration, then they can go to the ombudsman, who costs nothing, is much faster than the court, and is able to seek a solution on a friendly basis, which, due to its nature, a court cannot do. To conclude, I don’t accept that as Ombudsman I’m merely a fig leaf. I much prefer Professor Nikos Alivizatos’s observation that independent authorities, of which the ombudsman is one, are significant institutional counterweights to power. Such independent authorities do not get the best reception from power, at least in Greece. I’m convinced that the establishment of independent authorities in this country was a very important step and definitely a positive one. I cite the examples of the Supreme Council for Personnel Selection (ASEP) and the Data Protection Authority, whose work has in my opinion considerably upgraded the quality of our democracy. It’s a fact that ASEP, like other independent authorities, has been under attack from many quarters. I don’t doubt that its procedures are very time-consuming and that there is much room for improvement. But if it is made more efficient, it will certainly help establish meritocracy in the staffing of public administration and allow it to respond more fully to the needs and demands of our society and the improvement of democracy in Greece. Do Greek appeals to the Ombudsman fall into any particular category? They don’t diverge from the average with one exception, which is common to Southeast European countries and relates to greater awareness about the environment, since this has to do with the importance of tourism in Southern Europe. So in Greece we have a significant number of complaints relating to infringements of the relevant EU legislation. Examples include landfills and pollution of beaches.