Radio Ombudsman: In conversation with European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly

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Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

We’ve had some outstanding guests on the Radio Ombudsman podcast so far and our latest, Emily O’Reilly, is no exception. Emily has had a very successful career as a journalist, author, national ombudsman for Ireland, and in 2014 she became the first woman European Ombudsman.

As is the tradition for our Radio Ombudsman guests, I invited Emily to share something about her background and her values. She revealed that her interest in politics and current affairs began in childhood, thanks to her father. This, combined with her natural curiosity, sparked a career as an award-winning journalist.

After 20 years reporting on major international stories such as the troubles in Northern Ireland, Emily was approached by the Irish Government to become national ombudsman, a role she took on with customary gusto and commitment.

It was fascinating to hear of some of the important changes that Emily initiated to modernise the Irish Ombudsman and Information Commissioner’s office. This included working with pressure groups to bring about reform of the Freedom of Information act and making public services, such as the police, more transparent and accountable.

After 10 years in this role, Emily moved on to become European Ombudsman. This entailed a lengthy and at times gruelling applications process, as it is the only office within the European institutions that is directly elected by the Parliament. Emily has worked hard to make the European Ombudsman’s office more relevant, raising its visibility across the EU and ensuring its work is a key part of the political debate in Europe.

'Live it, don’t laminate it'

It was also interesting to talk to Emily about the importance of 'structural impartiality' – the idea that you can’t be an effective ombudsman unless you live the experience of the people who are going to make complaints. I agree with Emily that this can sometimes be a challenge, especially when people in our positions tend to be from more privileged backgrounds compared to many who bring their complaints to us.

Emily told me how she adopted the “Live it, don’t laminate it” mantra of former Scottish Public Service Ombudsman, Alice Brown, and stressed how important it is for people to feel they have been heard and their dignity respected.

Own initiative powers

As European Ombudsman, Emily has own initiative powers, which is when an ombudsman can investigate and report on failings it witnesses beyond the complaints it receives. Emily explained that, by putting these powers to good use, a single systemic investigation can solve a problem for many people. We touched on how such powers might have helped avert some of the misery suffered by people affected by the Windrush affair. I shall be using some of the valid points she made in future submissions I make to parliament on ombudsman reform.

Our role in relation to Brexit

We also discussed our roles as ombudsmen in relation to Brexit, including making sure that citizens know what their rights are. Ultimately, once there is a resolution (assuming there is resolution) of the negotiations, our role will be to make sure people get what they are promised and that those rights are not adversely affected in any way. We’ll need to work closely with our European colleagues to do that.

Career advice

I often ask our interviewees for their career tips and asked Emily what advice she would have for young graduates considering embarking on a career as an ombudsman. She said:

Really be engaged in the wide stuff of the world, read as widely as you can. Because everything an ombudsman touches in their work touches on every aspect of our lives.'

Listen now

I encourage you to listen to the podcast below. There is valuable learning for fellow ombudsmen around the world and for citizens of the UK and Europe. 

Future podcasts 

Our next podcast guest will be patient safety campaigner James Titcombe. Subscribe for latest updates. [LINK]