When citizens find a stone wall at city hall

IS the government closest to the resident, closest to his or her heart? Officials of state, county, and local governments would like to think so. But my research suggests that while residents have the most face-to-face contact with city hall or the statehouse, the experience is often clouded with apprehension and too often winds up in frustration. Take this experience, reported recently in the Washington Post:

After waiting and waiting, an elderly woman finally received her driver's license. She looked at the picture and declared angrily to her husband, ``They've got your picture on my license!'' Just then the clerk who had done the photographing passed by. Confronted with the problem, she smiled and said she was sorry. ``But why don't you just leave it - keep it in the family?'' The wife was not placated. ``Honey, I don't want his birthday.'' The clerk giggled and continued on her way.

In these days of big government and tight budgets, counter clerks face mountains of paper every working day. When new residents from such places as Vietnam or El Salvador try to communicate a problem despite barriers of custom and language, the possibility of departmental error, unfairness, or insensitivity increases. Government clerks have the same problems as the rest of us - run-ins with bosses, problems at home - and are not always at their smiling, eager best.

If the average city hall clerk handles only an average of 100 pieces of paper a day - 12 an hour - and makes a mistake on only 2 percent of them, the result will be two people a day who have lost confidence in their local government. If the transactions are in a high-volume department, say the Motor Vehicle Bureau, the odds are even greater. What can be done to undo the damage, short of an expensive and slow lawsuit?

One answer is to appoint an ombudsman. Most Americans have never heard of the position, but in the Scandinavian countries and much of the British Commonwealth it is a well-established and highly regarded post.

Sweden had the first, appointed in 1898, and now there are about 150 around the world, including 15 state, county, and city ombudsmen in the United States.

An ombudsman is appointed by government to receive and investigate complaints by individual citizens against government. He or she (many are women) has the authority to interview the government employee who handled the matter in contention, examine the case records, and then make a recommendation, using ``reasoned persuasion'' to achieve a remedy.

In interviewing 30 US and foreign ombudsmen, I learned that their findings were usually accepted, in whole or in part. I also found that complaints turned out to be unjustified in half or more of the cases, in which event the ombudsman was helpful in clearing a harassed public servant of unwarranted charges.

But even when constituents were disappointed in the ombudsman's findings, they indicated they were grateful for having an office to go to for a ``second opinion.'' All citizens gained by reminding government employees that they were public servants and not freewheeling bureaucrats. In many instances ombudsmen used complaints to identify policy or procedural shortcomings.

The cost of establishing an ombudsman office is more than offset by the increased responsiveness of government. There is a compelling cost-benefit argument as well. Every lawsuit averted by local government represents savings in legal defenses, court expenses, and jury awards.

Every state, county, and city in the US needs an ombudsman. Every citizen, old or new, will have more faith in government when he or she has access to one.

Sam Zagoria is the author of ``The Ombudsman: How Good Governments Handle Citizens' Grievances,'' Seven Locks Press.

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