Colette Langlois jokes that her office is possibly the only place where people are happy to receive complaints.
“We’re excited every time the phone rings or we get an email because it’s an opportunity to learn more because we’ve learned a lot from complainants. We learned a lot from working with the public service,” said Langlois, the NWT’s first ombud.
Thursday, which was Ombuds Day, came exactly 18 months after Langlois was appointed to the role on April 8, 2019.
As Ombud, her job is to field and resolve complaints that residents have with government services. Sometimes the resolution involves informal actions and other times a formal investigation occurs.
She also does outreach with some non-governmental organizations and advocacy groups, whose clients can benefit from the ombud’s services.
Since March 2019, close to 140 complaints and issues have been received by Langlois’ Hay River-based office. Most of them have been resolved.
The types of complaints the ombud receives span a broad spectrum, and Langlois said many come down to issues of communication.
“That can be things like, something’s not written in plain language. It seems obvious to the government workers that are dealing with the policy or that are writing the letters, but it doesn’t seem obvious to the person who’s on the other end of it,” she said. “It can be sometimes two different staff needed to be talking to each other and that didn’t happen, so information didn’t get passed along.
“Other issues that I see coming up a lot are around process. Somebody might apply for something and they (hear back) that the request has been refused. So they don’t know who made the decision, what the decision was based on and if there’s any possibility that it could be reconsidered or reviewed. They don’t know how to do that.”
Langlois’ scope under the NWT Ombud Act covers government services but not the decisions or actions of the legislative assembly, executive council, standing committees or courts.
Municipal governments and private business actions are also outside her purview.
“Although we can often provide referrals, because a lot of industries have their own ombudsman, like there’s an insurance ombudsman, there’s banking ombudsman. We can often often help in some way,” she said.
The act also states that she can’t investigate complaints originating earlier than Jan. 1, 2016.
Langlois stresses that members of the public should still reach out to her if they have complaints because she can refer them to someone else or suggest another course of action that would be useful.
“We listen. We’ll try and try our best to help out,” she said.
The Covid-19 pandemic was “surprisingly” limited in its impact on the day-to-day work of the ombud, Langlois said. She and her staff members were still responded to public inquiries by email and over the phone when they were working from home.
However, the pandemic has put on hold the ombud’s mandate of public outreach, which normally would include more training of public servants on administrative fairness and awareness-raising events.
“I had a lot more planned for this year. I would have done some presentations to community groups. I would have loved to have some booths at music festivals and trade shows and things like that. But, of course, all those events are cancelled. I think you’ll see more of that, hopefully next year,” she said.
Complaints and concerns with government services can be submitted by email, phone, fax or even by post.