Austrian Ombudsman Board: public relation activities on TV

Austrian Ombudsman Board: public relation activities on TV

An ombudsman has to make public what he considers being an act of maladministration and which improvements should be implemented. Taking into consideration that the Austrian Ombudsman Board is not able to impose legally binding sanctions on authorities and being aware of the fact that it has got no legal remedies at its disposal to enforce its legal opinions one has to realize that the efficiency of the ombudsman board depends on its capability of convincing authorities to follow and respect the recommendations of the board more or less voluntarily. In this context it is the reputation and popularity of the ombudsmen, the public consciousness about their dedication to the protection of civil rights and the significance of their arguments which all together lead to an increase of the acceptance of the board. Besides the consultation days there is a second element characteristic for the Austrian Ombudsman Board and representing a difference with regard to other European ombudsman institutions which has contributed quite a lot to an increasing confidence in our institution: For more than two years we have got again a “window to the public” on television, which we still keep open.

Due to the efforts of the former Federal Chancellor Dr Bruno Kreisky in 1979 a weekly broadcast on TV with members of the Austrian Ombudsman Board and their staff came on the air at prime time . The live broadcast, which always took 22 minutes, was part of the program of the ORF (Austrian Public Broadcasting Corporation) until 1992; it had up to one million spectators and until 1983 there had been even an additional 45 minutes’ broadcast on the radio.

My colleagues and me have made great efforts to establish the broadcast “Volksanwalt – Gleiches Recht für alle” (Ombudsman – justice for everybody), which at present is on the air in the early evening once a week. Every Saturday at 5:45 p.m. 600.000 spectators on the average have got the possibility to watch a confrontation between members of the Austrian Ombudsman Board with officers of public authorities for 35 minutes and can see what the Austrian Ombudsman Board is able to reach and which results it wants to reach. The respectably increased popularity of the ombudsman board has immediately led to an increase concerning the number of complaints against public administration lodged with the board. Since the broadcast has come on the air in January 2002 the number of applications respectively complaints has increased for 64%. Whereas in 2001 there were 9.032 people contacting the board there were 14.851 persons doing so only one year later. Luckily in 2003 the caseload stagnated on the level of the preceding year. The cooperation with the ORF is accepted by the citizens. After all every eighth review proceeding is directly linked to the broadcast.

The positive public response to the launch of the new broadcast in January 2002 implies the chance to attract the attention of spectators and authorities to a fair way of public administration as it is defined by the Austrian Ombudsman Board and hence to foster our approach. It is principally characteristic for democracies, that public administration is accountable for its actions and omissions and that in this context its representatives must be ready to take part in discussions and disputes. These representatives can expect not to be pilloried by the ombudsman or the presenter of a broadcast just only because the claims of a citizen had to be rejected due to binding legal provisions since it is clear that it cannot be the intention to reach arbitrary results by exerting pressure via mass media. This effect cannot only be reached by the public but also merely in the public. In the broadcasting there is public control by the spectators not only with regard to the public administration but also to the ombudsmen themselves. It is also the ombudsmen who have to consider the opinion and criticism of the spectators.

There are also additional other factors which mirror the new general interest in the activities of the Austrian Ombudsman Board. Whereas in 2001 there were no more than 48.000 visits of the homepage of the Austrian Ombudsman Board the number of internet users interested in the information about or consultation days and annual reports on our homepage nearly doubled (95.000 users; 380 visits each working day). The number of applications filed via e-mail also even doubled (1999:203; 2002:4.721; 2003: 8.428). In this context the Austrian Ombudsman Board seems to have the same problems like other institutions which are generally accessible for everybody: In 2002 only 2.493 out of 8.428 e-mails (10 e-mails per day) could be linked to a review procedure; the rest had to be seen as “electronic garbage” (virus, spam, etc.).

Regardless of the appreciation for the “new media” and new means of communication which nowadays have become a part of our every day life, we should not forget all the people who want to articulate their problems and needs via traditional channels of communication. Since 1977 about 67.000 persons have contacted the Austrian Ombudsman Board by telephone. In 2001 the information service of the ombudsman board, that can be contacted daily between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. had to deal with 4.682 telephone calls. In 2002 the number increased to 7.645 calls, which had to be handled in the 250 working days of that year (about 30 calls a day).

In this context the free service line (0800 223 223) of the ombudsman board is of special importance. It guarantees that there is no regional discrimination of people who contact the ombudsman board by telephone. This free service does not only provide an easier access to the ombudsman board but it also clearly mirrors the Austrian Ombudsman Board’s function as a controlling body not only in the field of federal public administration but also with regard to the public administration of 7 federal states and their local communities. In 2003 the service line cost the ombudsman board a total amount of 16.000. The free service line also guarantees that inhabitants of the federal states can contact “their ombudsmen in Vienna” under even better conditions as if they had their headquarters in the respective capital of a federal state.

We consider the interest of the population in the Austrian Ombudsman Board’s activities, which has constantly increased since 2001, being an indicator for confidence in our efforts and a confirmation of our approach concerning the effective implementation of a good and comprehensive service for citizens, which comprises more than only calling for better standards of administration. We cannot change the people, especially the people engaged in politics, with all their faults, but we can try to shape the institutions which form the framework for their activities in a way that selfish interests of political actors can be converted in a way that makes them useful for the welfare of the individual and the community.