OPENING REMARKS FROM THE OMBUDSMANSMAN AND THE HEAD OF THE OFFICE OF THE OMBUDSMANSMAN
This special Ombudsman’s Report is submitted to the Knesset under Clause 46(B) of the State Comptroller Law, 5718-1958 [Consolidated Version]. The Report reviews the activity of the Office of the Ombudsman during the first wave of the COVID-19 Pandemic, from March 15, 2020 to June 30, 2020. The COVID-19 Pandemic, an unprecedented crisis, has posed public bodies in Israel with challenges they have never had to cope with before. A crisis period such as this requires the public bodies more than ever before to provide efficient AND effective public service in order to assist the many people who have suddenly found themselves unable to provide for their families.
As in ordinary times, during the crisis as well the Office of the Ombudsman provides an address for individuals in their interactions with the various authorities, in order to protect their rights and enable them to exercise those rights and to receive adequate public service. During the period subject of the Report, 4,684 letters of complaint were received, of which 1,677 letters were related to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Approximately 75% of the COVID-19 Pandemic-related complaints were about issues directly related to the social safety net the State provided through various benefits or grants.
The Office was vigilant in ensuring that the distress and rights of the individual would not be engulfed by the mayhem of the battle against the Coronavirus. The Office acted to empower the voice of the individual and to ensure that he or she would receive respectful and appropriate treatment when interacting with public bodies.
During the crisis the Office found FLEXIBLE and creative ways to deliver prompt, effective responses to whoever contacted the Office, to quickly assist the public in finding solutions to the problems raised and to make the Office accessible to the widest audience possible. To this end the Office developed unique mechanisms aimed at resolving complaints. It must be noted that the rapid response to complaints was made possible primarily thanks to close cooperation between the public bodies that were the subjects of the complaints and the Office of the Ombudsman. 73.8% of the COVID-19 Pandemicrelated complaints which the Office was authorized by law to investigate and the investigation wherof was completed, were resolved successfully within the timeframe covered by this report or immediately thereafter - due to the actions of the Office of the Ombudsman.
The Office focused first and foremost on helping those individuals who contacted us. Where appropriate we highlighted to public bodies systemic problems which were brought to the fore through our investigations, and we worked with those bodies to rectify the problems.
The COVID-19 Pandemic is a global crisis. Offices of Ombudspersons all over the world have been dealing with its impacts on the public. The Office continually kept abreast of the measures taken by OMBUDS INSTITUTIONS around the world in order to make themselves accessible to those populations which were most severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Office also remained updated on issues which those institutions had to grapple with. The Office also updated the international community of OMBUDS institutions on the creative ways in which we operated during the crisis.
Israel is the only country in the world where the State Comptroller serves also as the Ombudsman. This concentration of authority yields added value both in the auditing work and in the work of the Office of the Ombudsman. The Office’s employees gain direct exposure to the acute distress of individuals and to the problems they must cope with in their contacts with various public bodies. Thus, the Ombudsman's Office is well-situated for identifying systemic problems and deficiencies in public bodies that need to be dealt with or fixed. The Office of the Ombudsman shares the vast information it accumulates from the investigation of complaints with the audit divisions in the State Comptroller's Office, and the divisions make use of the information when doing state audit. Here too, during the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Office provided invaluable information to the state audit divisions, which are currently engaged in preparing audit reports on various topics related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like the rest of the public sector, the Ombudsman's Office operated in emergency mode with only part of its normal roster, and needed to adjust its work practices during the crisis. Due to the urgency of the complaints and the need to provide quick resolutions, some of the employees of the Ombudsman's Office were designated as essential workers and continued to provide service to the public throughout the entire duration of the crisis, even when the country went into tight lockdown. The Office employees did their level best to assist the complainants in their distress, and urgent complaints were sometimes handled even on eves of holidays and the Sabbath. The Office also relaxed its procedures for filing a complaint during the crisis, accepting complaints over the phone in certain cases.
The Office also took various measures to increase awareness among the disadvantaged members of society about the option to contact us, including granting interviews of Office employees on the media aimed at various sectors and seeing to it that speakers of different languages would be available to assist people during the lockdown. In addition, the Office made contact with social welfare organizations and invited them to refer people encountering difficulties in exercising their rights when interacting with various authorities.
The Office’s employees initiated other steps to reach out to groups within the population who have been severely affected. For example, the Office’s personnel contacted elderly Holocaust survivors who were familiar to the Office through past complaints they had filed, in order to inquire about their health and general well-being and offer help if needed due to the crisis. One cannot overstate the emotional responses of these Holocaust survivors who, even if they were not in need of any specific assistance, were extremely appreciative of the very fact that someone took an interest in their situtation.
At the same time, the Office is working to strengthen the status of the people in charge of dealing with complaints in all of the bodies in the public sector, in order for them to be able to integrate norms of high-quality, efficient service, on a par with that provided by democratic countries around the world.
The many emotional thank-you letters we receive are indicative of the important role the Ombudsman's Office plays, especially in times of crisis, in safeguarding the rights of each and every individual, and of the Office’s contribution toward a highquality, efficient civil service.
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the pivotal role social networks play as a means for exchanging information on the public services provided in the State of Israel. As noted in this report, social media has fulfilled an important role in increasing awareness of the Office to populations that were in need of aid during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of the complainants stated that they had heard about the Office on social media networks.
The Office of the Ombudsman will continue working to make its service accessible to as wide an audience as possible, and we are hopeful that members of the public will continue to seek our help in cases of unfulfilled rights, where they have been denied proper service from a public institution in line with the norms expected from such a body in the State of Israel.
Matanyahu Englman Dr. Esther Ben-Haim, Adv.
The Israel State Head of the
Comptroller Office of the
and Ombudsman Ombudsman