In a recent publication the International Ombudsman Institute (IOI) published a Guide to Peer Reviews setting out best practice in conducting peer reviews of Ombudsman offices. This followed the deliberations of a seminar co-hosted by PHSO and the IOI in London in September 2019, reflecting on the Peter Tyndall-led peer review of PHSO in 2018.
The value of peer review
Peer review is a highly effective and inexpensive modern method for assessing organisational performance and quality of service that encourages growth through learning.
Although international ombudsman organisations vary in their size, scope and remit, they share similar challenges. This makes national ombudsman office holders well placed to independently assess sister organisations and provide valuable feedback.
In this context, and following the London seminar, I was commissioned by the Ombudsman of Catalonia (Sindic de Greuges de Catalunya), Rafael Ribó, along with the Federal Ombudsman of Belgium, Catherine De Bruecker, to carry out a peer review of the Catalan Ombudsman service. In this task, we were greatly assisted by James Hand (PHSO) and Donald Cardon (Office of the Federal Ombudsman).
Approach and findings
The panel visited the Catalonian Ombudsman’s office in Barcelona in January 2020. Rafael Ribó explained how peer review would be a valuable exercise that could help improve the quality of the Sindic’s service and operations. We took a holistic approach, analysing key documents, meeting with staff members from across the organisation and speaking with stakeholders and academics about the office’s mandate.
The review published today had a broad scope and the panel made recommendations in the areas of mandate, citizen accessibility and redress, effectiveness and efficiency, and leadership and people management. The panel found a strong and committed leadership team, effectively delivering individual case resolutions and thematic reviews (notably in the contested area of human rights) and working clearly and unambiguously within the Sindic’s mandate.
Radio Ombudsman: A passion for justice and human rights
Following the completion of the Peer Review, Rafael Ribó was my guest (during the COVID-19 pandemic and under lockdown) on Radio Ombudsman. He told me that he was born on the day the Second World War ended.
Rafael’s commitment to justice and human rights is a continuous thread through his life and career. As a pupil at a Jesuit school and a member of a boy scout group, he learnt the value of responsibility and developed an interest in social issues.
He went to university in his native Barcelona, where he studied Law and Economics and was involved in student activism, fighting for basic freedoms denied. He moved to New York to complete his MA in Political Science, where he was inspired by the USA’s history of grassroots activism.
Rafael returned to Barcelona in 1970 to complete a PhD and he became a university professor. He led a double life - a teacher by day and by night part of the underground movement working towards establishing democracy in Spain.
Rafael was a member of Parliament before becoming the Catalonian Ombudsman in 2004, so is well placed to explain the difference between the two roles. At its core, the Ombudsman must be impartial whereas politicians are partisan and represent their constituents’ interests. But impartiality is not to be mistaken with indecisiveness, he says:
'If at the end of your mandate you have no enemies, you did it very wrong'.
In his role as President of the European Board of the International Ombudsman Institute, Rafael contributed significantly to the development of the Venice Principles guiding principles used by ombudsman offices globally to benchmark their practices.
At the end of the interview, I asked Rafael for his advice for people wanting to work in the ombuds profession. He explained that a commitment to justice and passion for human rights is crucial, but the most important element of the role is to ‘Listen, listen, listen’.
You can listen to the podcast below or read a transcript.