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Reforming the European Network of Ombudsmen

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Introduction

The European Network of Ombudsmen (ENO) was created in 1996 to promote exchange of information about EU law and policy, and to share best practice between the national and regional ombudsmen and similar bodies of the Member States of the European Union, the candidate countries for EU membership, and the other European Economic Area countries, as well as the European Ombudsman and the Committee on Petitions of the European Parliament.

The common aim of all Network members is to defend citizens' rights and to ensure that the public enjoys the services of citizen-friendly, transparent, ethical, and accountable public administrations across Europe.

Since taking office in October 2013, the current European Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, began developing and implementing an ambitious programme of reform, focused on three mutually reinforcing objectives:

  • Impact
  • Relevance
  • Visibility

One of her key priorities for the coming years is to reform the Network, in line with these three objectives, to ensure that it reaches its full potential in serving European public interest. Following consultation with ENO members through a questionnaire in 2014, discussions at past Network seminars, input from the European Ombudsman's staff, and the European Ombudsman's own review of the Network's activities, a set of proposals has been drawn up for the reform of the Network.

Among the Network's key purposes are to enable Network members to be fully informed of developments in EU law and policy, particularly wherever those developments are of greatest relevance to their work at the national and regional levels; facilitate access to expertise within the EU institutions for members of the Network and; encourage cooperation and dialogue between the European Ombudsman and the other members of the Network through parallel investigations, exchanges of best practice, and other initiatives on topics of mutual interest.

The Network has an excellent potential to become a more vibrant and dynamic forum for exchange and cooperation by making better use of existing communication channels, and by focussing on selected policy areas of public interest.

The European Ombudsman is keen to strengthen her coordination role in the Network by being an innovative and strategic source for ENO activities in areas of mutual interest. She plans to strengthen the Network's visibility and to bring best practice from the national and regional administrations to the EU level and vice versa. Her regular interaction with EU decision-makers and other EU stakeholders enable her to bring the European dimension even more strongly into the Network debates than before.

In the European Ombudsman's office, the Head of the Communication Unit will continue to be in charge of the overall coordination of Network activities. In addition, the Head of Complaints and Inquiries Unit 1 will coordinate parallel investigations and cooperation with the Network on legal matters.

Parallel investigations

The excellent collaboration between Network members and the European Ombudsman greatly enhanced the Ombudsman's own-initiative inquiry regarding Frontex Joint Return Operations. Parallel investigations conducted by several national ombudsman offices and the European Ombudsman on this subject have shown the great potential for enhanced cooperation between Network members on issues of mutual interest. This is the first time that such cooperation has been achieved through the Network: it demonstrates the potential that exists for more such investigations.

The European Ombudsman therefore proposes to strengthen Network cooperation by carrying out parallel investigations on matters involving EU and national administrations. The investigations have the potential to substantially increase the relevance and visibility of the Network's activities in the public interest. In order to be successful, the topics to be investigated will have to be carefully chosen. As far as possible, the opening and closing of these investigations and the reporting of their outcomes could be aligned.

Seminars

Network seminars have a vital role to play in enabling Network members to discuss topics and developments of mutual interest, to share experiences, to develop cooperation with the EU institutions and with each other, and to demonstrate the ENO's added value to the European public.

In order to increase the visibility of the Network to the general public, EU decision-makers and other stakeholders and to enhance the opportunities for interaction between Network members and the EU institutions, the European Ombudsman proposes to reform and modernise Network seminars.

Instead of biennial national, regional, and liaison seminars, the European Ombudsman will from 2016 on organise one seminar per year in Brussels. It will be open to all interested Network members. These seminars will focus on pertinent public interest topics for the EU and national levels, for example in the context of parallel investigations. The EU institutions and other Brussels-based stakeholders, such as EU umbrella organisations, will be invited to play a more active role in the seminars to facilitate the exchange of best practice across Europe.

The seminars will be webstreamed live, in order to enable the public and Network staff members throughout Europe to follow the proceedings. The topics will be chosen in a way to also attract the attention of journalists and other multipliers, and with a view to increasing the ENO's visibility.

Instead of publishing the proceedings on paper in the months following each event, videos, speeches, and presentations will be made available online immediately after the event. The "Events" section of the Extranet will be made available to the public and will contain a publicly accessible calendar of all events organised not only by the ENO, but also by other ombudsman networks and associations

Revamping the seminars will greatly increase their impact on the general public, Network members, and specialised audiences, thanks to a more strategic choice of topics, as well as greater possibilities for interaction and discussion.

Targeted meetings

On top of the annual Network events in Brussels, further interactions between smaller groups of ombudsman offices or petitions committees with a view to exchanging information about parallel investigations or other topics of mutual interest could be beneficial.

The European Ombudsman therefore proposes to explore the possibility of organising regular video conferences, webinars or other such solutions to bring Network members together on a more regular basis. Such targeted meetings could, for example, consist of the investigators in parallel investigations with a view to exchanging progress reports and to coordinating communication activities. Better use of the Extranet could be made for these targeted meetings, once established, to share information.

The development of such targeted meetings has the potential to increase the relevance of the Network to staff members throughout member institutions and to facilitate cooperation. It also has the potential to adapt and evolve to meet changing needs, with groups being created, developed, scaled back, or dissolved, as priorities evolve.

Exchange of Network information

The exchange of Network information via the Extranet, the Ombudsman Daily News, the ENO Newsletter as well as seminar publications are the backbone of the Network's entire communications. However, technologies are advancing, resources are scarce, and electronic information sharing is increasingly taking over.

The European Ombudsman, therefore, proposes to reform and modernise the way in which Network members interact and exchange information and to make information, where appropriate, publicly available. She would also like to improve ENO communication tools to allow for a more dynamic dialogue among ENO members.

The Extranet is the key tool in the Network's information exchange and will be modernised to make better use of the "forum", for example in the context of parallel investigations or seminar preparation. Furthermore, the Extranet should, in the long term, become a more pertinent source of information about relevant EU law, best practice in the ombudsman offices and information gathering on topics of mutual interest.

In the medium term, the Extranet will turn into a genuine Network website with public sections and those that will continue to be reserved for Network members.

The most widely read section of the Extranet is the "News" section. The European Ombudsman is improving the Daily News system by fully automating it. This means that all news received through the RSS feeds from ENO offices, in all available languages, will automatically be displayed in the Daily News. In turn, Daily News subscribers will be able to choose in which languages they would like to receive news and from which countries and regions.

It is also planned to open up the "News" section of the Extranet and to allow the general public to subscribe to Daily News. This, again, will increase the visibility of Network activities.

The European Ombudsman also proposes some reforms as regards the ENO Newsletter. As the modernised Daily News will ensure that ENO Members are regularly updated on topical Network news, she proposes to replace the quarterly ENO Newsletter with an annual Newsletter, starting in 2016. This Newsletter will contain reports on key developments in the Network, including results of parallel investigations, highlights of ENO seminars and other pertinent news. It will be disseminated electronically and made publicly available.

Queries about EU law

Since the Network was created, dozens of ombudsman offices have submitted queries to the European Ombudsman about EU law issues that have arisen during inquiry. Through the query procedure, in which the European Ombudsman assists Network members by obtaining expert replies from the EU institutions, many national and regional ombudsman investigations have been resolved in a way that would not have been possible otherwise.

However, the query procedure has become cumbersome and time-consuming. The European Ombudsman will, therefore, reform the procedure internally by fast-tracking it for quicker results. This means that Network offices can submit queries as in the past and be sure to receive an answer in time to use it for their own inquiries. The European Ombudsman's office will thus use its regular interaction with the EU institutions in a more efficient way to obtain satisfactory and timely results for the Network.

The "Queries" section of the Extranet will remain accessible only to Network members. The replies from the EU institutions to queries about EU law will be accessible to all Network members. Examples of successful queries could be highlighted in the new ENO Newsletter.

By making the procedure more visible and by providing more information on its positive impact on Network offices, its relevance for ombudsmen and committees on petitions can be greatly increased.

Participation in the European Commission's public consultations on legislative proposals

The European Commission regularly launches public consultations on its legislative proposals and policy options. When the subject matter touches upon the rights of European citizens, all interested Network members could submit a joint contribution, based on the members' expertise in dealing with complaints and citizens' concerns. This could further strengthen the Network's impact and role as regards EU policy-making.

Open Government Partnership

The European Ombudsman has been increasingly engaging with the Open Government Partnership (OGP), and is delighted that several Network members have also taken the initiative to get involved in this important project. Twenty EU Member States have now signed up. The European Ombudsman encourages ombudsmen in those countries to be involved in OGP processes as brokers of dialogue between civil society and government, as part of the structures that manage the OGP, or by bringing in concrete “asks” into the action plans. In the eight Member States that are not part of the OGP (Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Germany, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, and Slovenia), the national ombudsmen or petitions committees could be an important lever in securing participation. The European Ombudsman will continue to pressure the EU institutions to maximise openness at the EU level.

The European Ombudsman hopes that all Network members will consider becoming actively involved in the OGP. This topic seems ideal for discussion at one of the Network's future events.