November 04, 2020

Policy Magazine: The Future of Ombuds in Canada

The bi-monthly magazine about Canadian politics and public policy features an analysis by Howard Sapers, the former Correctional Investigator of Canada, and Daniel Johns, Manager of Institutional Knowledge and Research with the Alberta Ombudsman,: "The Future of Ombudship in Canada." The authors write, "At a moment in history when trust in public institutions has been depleted by corruption and democracy is under siege in many parts of the world, the role of the public ombuds as mediator between citizens and their governments has never been more crucial."

The authors consider the breadth of Ombuds practice in Canada and draw some important conclusions about where the profession is headed. They make some especially compelling observations about the potential impact of technology:
Discussion in Victoria took on a futuristic tone in relation to technological change. The ascent of artificial intelligence means more decisions will be delegated to computers. In the future, it might fall to the ombuds to test the assumptions on which the algorithms are based. For example, will computers stress efficiency over fairness? It may seem expedient for the computer to accept a few unfair results for a greater good. Certain populations might end up disadvantaged if the algorithms prefer criteria that favours specific groups. This bias may be completely unintentional, but the differential outcomes clearly unfair.

Technology will no doubt further alter the relationship citizens have with their governments including with respect to the ability of governments to raise revenues to support public service and the devolution of the role of the public sector in the protection of the privacy and regulation of online transactions and information sharing. For ombuds, these concerns could easily manifest in challenges to jurisdiction and capacity. How will agents of parliament compete with private-sector exploitation of our daily activities? In this scenario, individual liberty could be at risk. How do Canadian ombuds provide oversight or accountability in a globalized digital economy?

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