Commissioner Epp leaves strong office

| 16/06/2009

(CNS): Having blazed a trail for the last five years to establish the Office of the Complaints Commissioner, Dr. John Epp is moving on to pastures new and leaving behind a strong and independent office for his successor. As the Cayman Islands’ first ever ombudsman, Dr. Epp says that his time in office has been exceptionally challenging but many important goals have been achieved. Prior to his appointment, there was no independent body investigating government administration, and while the Legislative Assembly was responsible for the establishment of the office, it was up to Dr. Epp to establish both the tone of the office and the vigour with which complaints would be investigated.

“As we gained our footing we took a robust approach to investigations and the formulation of recommendations in the wake of valid complaints,” he said. “We established a strong commitment to monitoring compliance with our recommendations and there is undoubtedly greater accountability as a result of the OCC.”

Since the office was established, it carried out an initiative to create an internal complaints process in every government entity, and three years down the line a recent audit revealed good results.
Dr. Epp and his team have worked diligently in educating civil servants about the independence of the office and in particular that the Complaints Commissioner’s role is one of an entirely independent investigator as oppose to an advocate for every complainant.

The fight to establish independence has been fought vigorously and won on a number of fronts. Dr. Epp explained that the OCC reports directly to the Legislative Assembly through the Speaker of the House and the Committee with responsibility for the OCC, and not to any one Minister or the Governor. The successful application to the Grand Court in September 2008 for a declaration of the extent of the office’s powers underscored that independence. “The court gave a purposive interpretation of some straightforward provisions which settled the fact that the OCC had the power to gather evidence from any source,” he said.

Another important victory for the independence of the office was when the attempt to unilaterally cut the OCC budget (FY 08-09) by 15% was successfully halted. “The point was made to the budget management unit and then to Cabinet that the OCC’s budget was set through the bi-partisan oversight committee and that it could not be altered without the approval of that committee,” Dr. Epp added.

Creating working partnerships has been a long but worthwhile fight. In the beginning, the OCC was welcomed by public servants so long as they weren’t the servants being investigated, Dr. Epp noted. “Some spent a lot of time trying to obstruct the process,” he added. “When request for documents or information are not met in a timely manner it not only frustrates the OCC and the complainants, who are anxious for a ruling, but it undermines the credibility of the government department. However, over time the general lack of urgency has been overcome and departments have begun to tolerate our investigations and even cooperate.”

He explained that many departments are becoming increasingly compliant with recommendations and are working more with the office to address the areas that give rise to complaints. Dr. Epp also sayshe understands why his office has faced some obstruction given the change fatigue in the civil service over reform in recent times, such as the implementation of the Public Management and Finance Law, the Freedom of Information bill and the establishment of his own office. “This has seen senior and mid level management within the service trying to establish change, keep up with training and still get the basic work of their departments done each day with limited resources,” he added.

While Dr. Epp and his team have won many battles and established a robust approach to investigations there are still more to fight not least engaging the Legislative Assembly with their work. The OCC has the power to instigate investigations where appropriate, and while the office has submitted 10 Own Motion Reports and 8 Special Reports since it opened, he is disappointed with the response.

“The Legislative Assembly has received the reports of investigations completed on my own initiative, which have resulted in some important changes within the relevant departments, but almost no debate has taken place about any of them,” he said. “I am disappointed and I encourage members of both sides of the House to debate the issues and points raised in the reports.” However, Dr Epp noted that, unfortunately, ombudsmen in other jurisdictions share in the frustration arising from limited or no debate of reports tabled.

Looking back Dr. Epp says that if he were given the opportunity to redo his five years there are only one or two things he would change. “I believe we should have delayed the opening of the office for a few months to allow OCC staff to intern in government departments and allowtime to get our internal systems prepared. When we opened we were literally overrun with people seeking assistance and we were forced to play catch-up on our own work while conducting casework, as well as building our confidence.”

The biggest battles have now been won, however, and Dr. Epp says his successor , Commissioner Designate Nicola Williams, should be able to pick up the OCC ball and run, although he laments the lack of opportunity for a handover period. With his departure in July and the new Commissioner staring in August the time allowed to give the newcomer an understanding of the sensitivities of the office has been limited to one week of specially organised meetings.

Nevertheless, he says the new Commissioner comes to the job with a well established, trained and welcoming team in place, and a greater understanding in the public sector of the role and relevance in the value of the office. During his five years Dr. Epp says he has probably taken on the number and kind of challenges an ombudsman would normally face in a decade because he has had to lay the groundwork for what is an entirely new area of public accountability.

“It is not unusual for ombudsmen who serve first to step down after just one term,” he explained. “Not least because establishing a new office involves being in some really tough quasi-political battles, and we have had our fair share with some good fighters. After a series of so many political prize fights, it’s time to hand things on to the next person who will come into this ring renewed.”

Dr. Epp himself will be returning to the private sector and his first love, the practice of law, with the firm of Conyers, Dill and Pearman.

The OCC is located on the 2nd floor, 202 Piccadilly Centre, Georgetown, Grand Cayman, phone number (345) 943 2220. The website is www.occ.gov.ky.
 

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