The offices of the Complaints Commission are inconspicuously crammed behind a bolted door on the second floor of an office building in George Town. Entry is granted via an intercom. Nicola Williams leads the way to her small office with a desk that barely leaves room for documents and a desktop computer. The meeting room is blocked by ongoing interviews that are part of the Commission’s own motion investigation into unpaid private sector pension contributions. So her office, after moving some chairs, will have to make do for the interview.
The tall Londoner carries the aura of a judge, who is used to getting things done independently and getting things her way. Only four months before arriving in Cayman she has learned to swim. To be able to take full advantage of living on a Caribbean island, she says. Yet, she already has a lot of experience of swimming in the political shark tank that is the natural habitat of an ombudsman, responsible for investigating government maladministration, inefficiencies and injustice. For years she was first a board member of the Police Complaints Authority in the UK and when this organisation was replaced, she became a Commissioner of the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
“My five year term ended at the 5 March last year. I saw this job advertised in the Sunday Times in February and really just thought kind of on a whim to apply,” she says. Williams was invited for interview in May, got the job and started as the second Complaints Commissioner in the history of the Cayman Islands in August.
She regards the fact that she moved four and a half thousand miles for her new job as testing in itself, but was also attracted by her new role being very much along the lines of the work she has done before. “In fact the job description is basically a direct lift from my previous job description, except that my previous job only concentrated on the role of ombudsman of the police,” she says.
In the Cayman Islands, in contrast, the Complaints Commission is responsible for all types of complaints about government administration and investigates potential injustice as a result of improper, unreasonable or inadequate government administrative conduct.
During the second interview of the selection process that saw her appointed from a group of 160 applicants, Williams was asked to do a presentation on how she would see the Commission unfold over the next five years.
“The idea of coming into a still quite young organisation gives me a chance to shape it and mould it during my five year appointment,” she says. “I could not resist that challenge.”
As part of this challenge she wants to ensure that her office is open and accessible to all residents of these islands, whether they are Caymanian or expatriate and irrespective of their socio-economic group. This will involve “a lot of public education and outreach work, which has really taken off since I have been here,” she says.
In addition, her aim is to see through that government’s internal complaints process is up and running and effective, something her office has spear-headed. Williams points out that “prior to 2006 there was virtually no complaints process within government”.
As a result complaints against a specific department could not be effectively addressed by the department itself. The Complaints Commission did an own motion report in 2006, which identified the need for internal complaints processes as well as their almost total absence. Subsequently the Commission worked with core government to put the processes and procedures in place. “I am happy to say that all of those government ministries and departments now have their own complaints process,” says Williams. “We have already hit that marker.”
Her third objective is “to make sure that the office does its investigations fairly and independently and fearlessly, mindful always of issues of confidentiality”. The issue of confidentiality requires particular attention in a small state jurisdiction, where everyone seems to be related either by blood or by marriage and gossip and rumour are a national past-time.
“Those are my overarching aims for the office for the next five years,” says Williams. “Woven in between these are the sort of day to day things that we need to run this office; year on year there are things to consider.”
At the top of those is the question of how to manage the herculean workload of dealing with 465 early resolution complaints, which tend to be resolved within a month, and 35 longer investigations, which can take up to a year, in 2009 alone. This does not even include four own motion investigations that were started before Williams joined the office, but finished during her tenure.
All investigations have to be carried out with a staff of six, which includes the Commissioner, one administrative and investigate officer, who is also the Commissioner’s deputy, two analysts and two administrative staff.
“I think with the small staff that we have and the budget that we have, which also small, we do a very good job,” says Williams.
Money and independence
Money appears to be a key issue for the Commission that is completely independent from the government. The Commission derives its authority from the Complaints Commissioner Law 2003. It does not answer to the governing party or any ministers and the Commissioner is appointed by the Governor. However, the Commission’s budget has to be approved by the Legislative Assembly, which is also where the Commission’s reports are tabled.
Williams acknowledges that she has “to make sure that our office has enough money to do the work that I want it to do and in the way I want it to do it. I don’t want our work to be compromised in any way.”
In particular the own motion investigations, such as the pension investigation, put her department under strain, as currently all investigators are working on it in some form in addition to all the other work. Office funding and office staffing are therefore a critical issue. But how independent is the Commission really, if funding is in the hands of the government?
“This office is entirely independent,” says Williams. “Our budget is approved by the Legislative Assembly, but this is the only thing that the Legislative Assembly has any say on.”
There is no say on the kind of work we do, who we hire or what we don’t look at, she explains. “That means that our independence is safeguarded.” Williams says she does not want people to think that only because the Commission receives government funding, it is in any way compromised. “I don’t consider that we are.”
“In terms of the work that we do and the complaints that we decide to take on, that decision is mine and mine alone,” she adds firmly.
The need for more staff would depend on the number of complaints in 2010, Williams concedes, but the more staff the more work can be done. And there is always more work that can be done.
“Our office is responsible for complaints against over 80 government entities. So that’s not just core government, it’s all the boards, the commissions and the agencies.” The Commission also does not have an in-house lawyer.
“It just so happens that I am legally trained, but we really should have a dedicated separate in-house lawyer,” states Williams, who is a trained barrister and has recently been appointed a judge in the UK.
How to complain
Anybody can lodge a complaint with the Complaints Commission about a specific government conduct, after having exhausted the government department’s internal complaints process. The idea behind the internal process is to benefit both the government body and the complainant by resolving issues where they arose. “And even if [complainants] don’t get it resolved, if they feel that they get a good hearing, they are not as aggrieved,” says Williams. “Sometimes we get people who are very aggrieved and mostly because they feel that nobody is paying attention to them.”
If the internal process does not lead to a satisfactory conclusion, “then one of our investigators would sit down with you, take your full details and then we would decide whether it is a matter that can be resolved as an urgent resolution complaint or if it is going to take much more investigation.”
If the complaint gives rise to something that is systemic, for example because similar complaints have been made before, the Commission could decide to conduct a wider-reaching own motion investigation.
The outcome of such an investigation is then handed over to the Legislative Assembly in the form of an own motion report, which, once it has been tabled, becomes a public document. “They are legally obliged to table our reports and I suppose to debate them,” says Williams. “They certainly table them, but there is actually very little debate.”
The difficulty with ombudsman’s offices around the world, not just the one in Cayman, she says, is that they do not have any coercive powers. The Commission has the power to seize documents and examine witnesses, but it does not have the power to sanction anybody, who does not follow its recommendations.
“So the only thing we can do is, by a mixture of carrot and stick, persuade people to do the right thing. We can show how it would be a win-win for that particular entity to actually follow our recommendations.”
In addition to the moral pressure, the Commission can always go to the press, which has been done in the past, says Williams. “I think you have to use all the legal means at your disposal. I don’t want us to make recommendations and they are just ignored.”
Show me some appreciation, but I am not counting on it
For some, however, even moral suasion is already too much. “You are lucky that I am honest and not going to tell you that everybody gets on really well,” says Williams. “I actually do find, to be fair, that most of the government sees the need for our office and when we make recommendations they will do what we say.”
“But there is a kind of hard rump of some few individuals who, I think, feel there is no need for this office.”
They would question why an ombudsman office is needed now, when there has not been one before 2004 or believe the office is only out to make their life difficult, says Williams. “But they are in the minority and I am sure that minority will be getting smaller.”
It is not in the nature of the job of the Complaints Commissioner to be popular with the government, concedes Williams. “Yes, it would be wonderful if I had friends in government, but I am certainly not counting on that,” she says. “But I also want to get across that we are not out to make anybody’s life unnecessarily difficult and we are not trying to victimise people,” she adds sternly.
She hopes that everybody working in government in a broader sense would actually be in favour of good government administration and the proper investigation of any maladministration allegations. “That’s where there is the need for our office. You could have this one bad apple that makes the whole department look bad and you don’t really want this tainting the reputation of a whole department.”
At the same time the work of the Commission focuses on processes in government and how they could be made to run better, not on individuals, Williams insists. “I think that sometimes there are people in government, who take it unnecessarily personally, and there is no need for that.”
She also advocates the policy of open dialogue and consensus building and argues that her recommendations are not cast in stone, if there are reasonable objections. “Once I make recommendations I do invite them to make comments on the recommendations. And if I feel that their comments are justified I will take them into account and I might revise my recommendations.”
“It’s not us being dictatorial. There is time for that, but most of the time that’s not necessary.”
The Complaints Commission together with the auditor general’s office and the Freedom of Information Commission forms a system that ensures effective government administration and accountability in a modern democracy.
Some people may have the feeling that because these bodies have only been recently introduced, they are somewhat discretionary, says Williams. “But the fact of the matter is that you have a function in democracy. We need these offices. They are not an option, they are a necessity.”
Another such office, the Anti-Corruption Commission, has been added at the beginning of 2010 and Nicola Williams, as the Complaints Commissioner, is a member of this body as well. But so far there have been only preliminary meetings and it is too early to say anything about the workings of the Anti-Corruption Commission, she says.
Independent Police Complaints Commission in Cayman?
One area that could benefit from an independent complaints process in Cayman is the police force, says Williams. However, whether an equivalent to the Independent Police Complaints Commission in the UK should be brought in on a stand-alone basis or whether the role of the Complaints Commission should be expanded to include it, is not for her to say.
“But I know the Police Commissioner will share this view that both members of the public and police officers, who by and large do a very good job, would benefit from independent oversight of alleged misconduct,” she says.
Irrespective of the outcome of misconduct investigations, the people would have more faith in the findings of an independent body, asserts Williams.
The versatile Williams has written a legal thriller in the past and the finished draft of her second book is waiting for a final once-over. But so far, she says, her new role has left her no time for writing, a hobby that relaxes her. At least the annual reports of her office should become a more interesting read, promises Williams. She also plans a regular newsletter on the work of the Commission.
Future areas of investigation?
Any attempts to find out which areas could be the target of future investigations by the Complaints Commission are resolutely rebuffed by Williams. “Now why would I tell you that?” she asks with a smile. “The only bonus of having a small office is that we can be stealthy and move quickly.”