The Ombudsman

MANILA, Philippiness --- THE role Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales played as a witness in the impeachment trial has been climactic, perhaps the most dramatic testimony before Chief Justice Renato Corona's own.

This puts the Ombudsman as an institution in the spotlight, an opportunity for the greater public to understand and appreciate how critical it is in governance.

The origins of the Ombudsman is traced back to 1713 when Charles XII, King of the Swedish Empire, signed an ordinance appointing a Supreme Royal Ombudsman whose task was to ensure that civil servants, military officers, and judges followed the law. As the king was on frequent military campaigns, he felt the need to have a formal mechanism to keep an eye on his royal officials.

The Swedish Constitution of 1809 established the Parliamentary Ombudsman of Sweden and made it independent of the king. Its primary task is to keep public servant in check - the concept of the Ombudsman we know today.

However, this concept was not adopted internationally until well into the 20th century, and initially just by the Scandinavian nations Finland, Denmark, and Norway. The concept gained greater traction beginning the 1960's. Today, the Ombudsman is an integral feature of democratic governance.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) together with the Asian Ombudsman Association (AOA) undertook a two-year study about strengthening the Ombudsman institutions in Asia. The report shows that the formal institution was created in Asia later than in the rest of the world, though some ancient civilizations had a similar official or office in place.

Countries like China and Vietnam had supposedly established ombudsman offices in the early 1940's but later on modified their functions. Japan's Administrative Evaluation Bureau created in 1966 is the oldest original office that remains intact today. Meanwhile, the youngest one in Asia is that of Pakistan, established in 2005. Our own was established through the 1987 Constitution.

One observation in the study is very interesting, and even puts into question the common notions we have of the role of the Ombudsman. The conventional view is that the Ombudsman paves the way for better governance. On the contrary, the study shows that better governance leads to better Ombudsman offices, as exemplified by Japan, Hong Kong, and Korea.

In the Philippines, we imbue greater power - and hope - in the Ombudsman's ability to exact accountability and promote transparency. Ombudsman Carpio Morales' testimony underscored that yet again.

The AOA-ADB project recommends core principles for reform of the Asian ombudsman institutions. Among them are the institutionalization of the mode of ombudsman appointment, expansion of jurisdiction, provision of financial and administrative security, enabling access to information by lowering the threshold of confidentiality, ombudsman input into administrative reform and public policy, institutional networking around the globe, and promoting scholarly research. Our ultimate goal should be to boost the Ombudsman's credibility and effectiveness.

There is a clear correlation between corruption and development. The public sector cannot do it alone, the private sector and civil society must get firmly on board. But most importantly, there should be a national strategy that will enable all sectors to perform their roles in a concentrated and coordinated manner.

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