Thursday, March 24, 2005

Ombudsman? A band-aid solution to a huge problem.

Babble on.

Andre Marin is currently finishing his tenure as the Canadian Armed Forces' first ombudsman. He opened the office in 1998, operating out of a cubicle at NDHQ. He's leaving the position with a staff of 50 civilians and a $5 million per year budget.

"I'm not a military basher. To me, it's tough love. I'm a great fan of the military. Soldiers need a voice, and this office is uniquely positioned to provide an unbiased, independent perspective on military issues."

Often, he says, the military is its own worst enemy, touting baby steps as monumental change, resisting criticism where it's often warranted and imposing damage control that can look disturbingly like cover-up.

"It's inbred," he said.

With statements like that, he hasn't won many friends in the upper echelons of the CF establishment. In fact, some have speculated that DND is looking to replace him with a former senior military officer - someone less likely to publicly embarrass the brass when they screw up. But the same article by Scott Taylor points out why that is precisely the wrong way to go:

To maximize this public clout, Marin found it necessary to reach out to the national media and thus earned himself a reputation as a truly independent watchdog. But the more reports released by Marin garnered headlines of wrongdoing, the more the generals and bureaucrats closed ranks to shut him out.

As the rank and file became aware of this widening rift, the once-ridiculed Ombudsmidget became the well-regarded and trusted Budman. The shift in the troops' loyalty only further miffed the generals, particularly when soldiers made their common concerns known to the ombudsman during his numerous fact-finding missions to operational bases.

Because I believe ordinary members of the CF desperately need a champion, I support the office of the ombudsman. Having said that, I'd like nothing better than to see it wither away completely from disuse. Let me elaborate.

I understand why the uniformed establishment is uneasy with the concept of a civilian ombudsman. The backbone of any military organization is the chain of command. Greivances are supposed to be handled within that chain.

But the need for an ombudsman - and make no mistake, there is a need - is a symptom of the fact that ordinary rank-and-file soldiers, sailors, and airmen have lost faith in their chain of command. The problem is that, while an ombudman can be an effective band-aid for the most glaring examples of DND organizational stupidity, it can't do anything about the underlying problem.

An ombudsman can't make the troops regain faith in their chain of command.

And without that faith, no matter what budgetary remedies or White Paper policies we adopt, our military will remain crippled.

Babble off.

Update: More about the evolution of, and need for the Military Ombudsman's office here:

"...for the rank-and-file soldiers, Marin's office has been a welcome arbitrator able to break through the red tape and bureaucratic intransigence that could make life hell. The proof is in the complaints that flooded his office — upwards of 1,300 a year — about benefits, release, medical concerns, recruiting, harassment and other issues."

Thirteen-hundred complaints per year? Thirteen-hundred situations that CF members felt weren't handled appropriately by their chain of command? Thirteen-hundred circumstances egregious enough to file a complaint with the office of last resort?

For shame.


At 4:22 p.m., Blogger Chris Taylor said...

Amen, Damian. Good officers know that the only thing more important than looking after your troops is accomplishing the mission.

Until the CF senior brass starts paying serious attention to the needs of the force at large, and specifically the enlisted men and junior officers, there will be an endless morale and retention problem.

At 3:11 p.m., Blogger TraviSmyth said...

You are precisely correct. If the Officer Corps did their job and properly looked after their troops, there would be no need for an Ombudsman.


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