The Daily Herald writes that the National Ombudsman representatives Stefan Pfeifer and Jeanine Stam visiting Saba this week extended an interview concerning their efforts on the island. Frank van Dooren is the interim National Ombudsman, the head of the institution supported by some 170 employees of which six experts focus on the Caribbean Netherlands. The institution acts is an independent, impartial intermediary between island residents and all levels of government. It seeks to defend the interests of the individual and promote the public institutions’ accountability.
The experts visit Saba twice annually with Pfeifer on this fourth stint and Stam on her first. In addition to setting up meetings with residents during their visits, their services are provided remotely year round. Residents can submit their complaint forms and queries electronically online (www.nationaleombudsman. nl/bes), by mail at their headquarters in The Hague or by first approaching the experts at the toll-free number: 0800 05 55.
In addition to getting to know individuals, both clients and civil servants on Saba, the experts confessed they keep abreast of developments on the island by reading The Daily Herald and Saba-News.com to better understand the local context and challenges.
Asked about the official 40 formal complaints filed on St. Eustatius and Saba in the past year, the experts explained that Saba had in 2013 a total of 17 complaints: nine of them involved the functioning of the Island Government while eight fell under the various ministries represented regionally by the Caribbean Netherlands National Service (RCN).
Asked about complaints filed against the health insurance office ZVK, Pfeifer explained that the number of related complaints has substantially decreased. On Saba, none were formally submitted against ZVK in 2013. He credits the decrease to a predictable path as the new institution needed time to streamline its protocols. Similarly, he stated that there were no formal complaints against the Saba police, despite public accounts of challenges.
The Tax Department continued to register a steady stream of complaints comparable to those in the European Netherlands, but the actual functioning of the institution appears to work on the same standards as across the Atlantic.
There was one case against the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) on Saba this year.
Asked about means to address recurrent challenges registered by the outlier institution, the Island Government, Pfeifer confessed there is consistency in complaints against the local government having to do with “communication deficiencies, not listening to people or answering to them or delaying answers.” Stam suggested there is “not a good handling of complaints” and that this would be an area on which to work with the Executive Council to establish consistency.
Pfeifer explained that some complaints are handled well, but others “can go very bad.” The experts say they “are busy” working with the island government’s representatives and hope that the meetings this week will lead to positive outcomes soon. They would prefer to have the Island Government mediate a resolution to the complaint internally, without the need for Ombudsman assistance. This sensitive approach is expected to promote a consolidation of internal institutional protocols on handling such cases, not necessarily on imposing European municipality standards.Stam would prefer their role to be one of suggesting competent improvements, not of enforcing mandates.
When asked about the average duration of the resolution seeking process following a formal submission of a complaint, Pfeifer could not give a number. Instead Stam offered as response an indication that the process involves steps at various administrative levels with the process often ending at that primary contact level. Pfeifer believes the last four cases taken further on Saba took between three to four months to resolve. This was partly because the preferred approach is to have the Island Government seek the solution internally and learn from the experts’ suggestions. The experts can facilitate rules on how to handle direct complaints, to avoid having these ignored and taken further. Clear protocols on methods to register complaints and guidelines on timely addressing them are still needed.
Local public institutions must clearly inform the complaining client about available recourse to decisions, including the option of contacting the Ombudsman. The experts believe the local government would like to have such protocols established by the end of this year and various RCN departments target similar goals.
The competency of the Ombudsman concerning complaints about non-governmental organisations providing public services funded out of taxpayers’ funds is a more complex issue the experts could not address. Foundations providing public services, such as health or hospice care, may not always fall under the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction. Irrespective of this, the experts would like to encourage residents to formally file their complaints. “People and institutions learn from these complaints” said Stam, “it doesn’t have to be negative but it can change things.”