Exclusive Interview: Beate Gminder, Secretary General, European Ombudsman’s Office

By on 02/07/2017
Beate Gminder, secretary general, European Ombudsman’s Office

The European Ombudsman has gradually been expanding its remit, launching strategic and ‘own initiative’ inquiries into the EU’s systems and operations. Liz Heron interviews its secretary general about its changing role – and her own journey from poacher to gamekeeper

The narrative around ‘unaccountable Brussels bureaucrats’ has gained enormous traction in parts of Europe, playing a significant role in the UK’s Brexit vote. But the reality is that Brussels officials are not unaccountable – and that is, in part, thanks to the work of Beate Gminder and her colleagues.

Gminder is the Secretary General of the office of Emily O’Reilly, the European Ombudsman, and manages an 80-strong team charged with holding EU institutions to account on behalf of Europe’s 500m citizens. She crossed the invisible line from poacher to gamekeeper two years ago, following a 20-year career inside the European Commission working on policy development and service delivery; nowadays, it’s her job to scrutinise the way in which EU institutions – and her former colleagues – respond to complaints and pursue key principles around justice and fair access to services.

Like national ombudsmen in more than 70 countries around the world, the office’s primary role is to investigate complaints from citizens, businesses and NGOs about administrative errors and malpractice by public bodies, and to seek solutions. But instead of a national government, the European Ombudsman examines the seven major institutions and 40-plus agencies of the EU; among the bloc’s big organisations, only the European Court of Justice falls outside its responsibilities.

Remit and role

The impartial body launches investigations – either in response to complaints, or on the ombudsman’s own initiative – and rules on whether there has been a case of maladministration. Its remit covers discrimination, abuse of power, refusal to provide information, flawed procedures, unfair conduct and unnecessary delays.

In an inquiry, the ombudsman’s office then seeks to resolve the problem by means of persuasion and publicity. First it invites the institution to take remedial action voluntarily, and then it tries to broker an amicable solution. If that fails, it puts forward its own recommendations for action.

A key difference between the EU and national ombudsmen is its focus on promoting good administrative practice as well as solving individual cases, Gminder explains. “We look at how we can work towards a gold standard of administrative practice in the institutions,” she says. “We have quite a lot of investigative powers. We can inspect documents, we can ask EU officials to testify – although we do that very rarely – and we can also open ‘own initiative’ inquiries, when we see that there is a systematic problem with a procedure or how an institution behaves.”

The first ombudswoman

The office was set up in 1995, and the ombudsman is elected by the European Parliament. To date there have been just three ombudsmen: Jacob Soderman, a Finnish politician; Nikiforos Diamondouros, a Greek political scientist; and the incumbent Emily O’Reilly, a prize-winning Irish journalist, who took on the role in 2013. All were previously ombudsmen in their home countries.

“Each of them brought the office to a new level of success, in my opinion,” Gminder says, adding that “Emily O’Reilly came in with the more strategic element. She set up a strategic inquiry unit, which has three people. I do think that she actually brought it on to a strategic level, and pushed the boundary of the political context a bit further. We have around three strategic inquiries and about 15 ‘own initiative’ inquiries a year.”

Taking a more proactive approach to investigations than her predecessors, O’Reilly has led the office into controversial areas such as the power of Brussels’ 30,000 lobby organisations and the transparency and probity of the policy-making process. She launched inquiries into both the transparency of the EU-USA Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations, and ‘trilogues’: the informal, closed-door talks held between parliament, council and commission over the drafting of new legislation.

“Obviously, we accept that there has to be a space to think and decide, but we have been asking that the surroundings and procedure of the trilogues be made public,” says Gminder. “For example, when it’s happening, what documents are at stake, who is participating and, in due course, what is the outcome and who took what position.”

O’Reilly also investigated complaints of a ‘revolving door’ involving senior officials leaving the commission only to secure lucrative contracts with their former employers, and examined protections for whistle-blowers. And she took on the powerful tobacco lobby with an inquiry that found the commission was failing to meet UN rules.

A problem of pace

In 2016, a total of 1,880 complaints were received, of which 12.5% triggered inquiries. The office aims to complete inquiries within one year, hitting that target in two thirds of cases: in 2016, 30% of cases lasted more than 12 months and 20% were still ongoing after 18 months. “One of my key jobs as the COO of the organisation, so to speak, is to keep deadlines and monitor the handling of complaints,” says Gminder. “We have an internal case management system.

“From the moment a complaint arrives in the office until the moment it leaves the office, it is tracked through specific software; and in that we have plenty of dashboards and possibilities to see how the clock is ticking on a case. We are largely fairly quick. Usually they overshoot because of fairly technical issues like translation time and giving a response time to the institution.”

EU institutions have three months to respond to each proposal put by the ombudsman, taking a huge amount of time in complex cases; so Gminder has been trying to hasten responses by keeping officials more closely informed of cases’ progress. “Last year, we revised our internal implementing provisions on how we execute handling of complaints,” she says. “We try to front-load a lot of preliminary meetings. We have a lot more meetings now with institutions than we used to have, which accelerates understanding on both sides.”

Transparency has remained the office’s primary strategic focus, with inquiries opened into the European Central Bank, the European Investment Bank, expert groups, special advisers, and even the work of the council of ministers. In 2016, transparency inquiries accounted for nearly a third of the office’s work.

Any complaints about complaints handling?

Of the 277 inquiries completed by the office in 2015, 53% were settled by the institution or a solution was agreed with the ombudsman; but in 11% of cases, the ombudsman ruled that the complainant had been a victim of maladministration. Of the remainder, 28.5% found no maladministration and 19.5% concluded that no further inquiries were justified.

The overall compliance rate among EU institutions to the ombudsman’s demands was 83%, while for the strategic inquiries it was 95.5%. “That is a very positive message,” says Gminder. “We are usually noticing that the institutions are keen to cooperate and follow-up with what we have proposed.

“If we are unhappy about the follow-up given by an institution, we [can] deliver a special report to the European Parliament and ask [it] to act. The parliament can then adopt a resolution where it criticises the institution and asks for corrective action.”

The ombudsman has taken this measure of last resort 19 times since the office was set up in 1995 – most recently when EU Border Agency Frontex refused to comply with the ombudsman request that a complaints mechanism for migrants be established. Parliament backed the ombudsman’s position, and Frontex ultimately gave way.

Compliance figures for individual institutions are published annually in the Putting it Right report, and the office follows up on institutions that refuse to comply. “We will make negative publicity around a negative decision and very openly say that we are disappointed,” says Gminder. “We have nearly tripled our media visibility since Emily O’Reilly took office because of the strategic initiatives she took on, like the trilogues. So that is helpful as well.”

Lunch with the poachers

So the ombudsman’s impact on Brussels is growing, creating more challenges for Gminder’s former colleagues in the Commission; but she’s confident that working for the watchdog has not affected her professional relationships with other senior civil servants. “I have felt no positive or negative effect from moving from the commission to more of an accountability body like the ombudsman,” she says. “On the contrary, I was very intrigued to get that experience.”

The office runs a casework system designed to limit the potential for conflicts of interest or damage to relationships by limiting the distribution of information about which EU officials are the subject of citizens’ complaints or involved in responding to them. “I am not digging into the complaints to the level where I would know all the names and who is accused of what,” she says. “I can go to lunch with someone I know, and they might have a complaint from us and deal with us and I wouldn’t even know about it.”

With 15 years of working life still ahead, Gminder’s position as secretary general of the office is the pinnacle of her career to date. But what bearing does that invisible line between watchdog and administration have on her future trajectory? Could she see herself going back to a senior role in the Commission?

“It’s hard for me to see any consequences for my career right now,” she says. “I have only been here for two years. I think I have led the office to a considerable blossoming and success. And I think the new experience gained in this job will be seen as an asset for any future development.”

Global Government Forum: Five Thoughts for Better Government

Beate Gminder on learning from overseas

To help our readers get the best out of Global Government Forum, we ask interviewees five standard questions – four seeking practical advice and opinions, and one to reveal something a little more personal. This is an edited version of Beate Gminder’s answers.

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that has helped you or your colleagues?

“We are an international office that works with people from abroad as a point of departure. So we have taken one key idea from the people we work with directly. It was to form a network with the national ‘ombudspeople’ within the EU, and even the accession states. The European Network of Ombudsmen has brought together a wealth of knowledge about procedural, ethical and accountability matters, and we all learn from each other.”

Are there any projects or innovations from the European Ombudsman’s office that might be helpful to your peers overseas?

“Our experience of going beyond purely administrative matters to look at issues of transparency and ethical standards and behaviour in the political context may be helpful to ombudsmen in other parts of the world. It is not about extending our role, but about approaching various areas, such as trilogues, the informal negotiations on draft EU laws, from an administrative angle.”

How can we improve the ways in which senior public officials work with and learn from their colleagues overseas?

“I am a big fan of knowledge sharing and also joint training courses. I benefitted from attending a management course at Harvard University in the United States, where we talked around the clock for a week about how we could improve our senior management processes. I learnt a huge amount that I was able to take back and apply in my job. So I think it is very beneficial to look at how other people in your field are doing the job and the style in which they do it.”

What are the biggest global challenges in your field in the next few years?

“Erosion of trust in politicians is a growing trend across modern democracies. So as a public service that supports democracy and tries to also support citizens and connect them to the political process and political life, it is a huge challenge for us to maintain citizens’ interest in wider society. I also think it is crucial to the survival of democratic societies that citizens do continue to engage.”

What is your favourite book?

That is tricky because there are so many. But I go back again and again to a book I have read many times, Exile. That is by the German Jewish author Lion Feuchtwanger. He wrote it in Paris, where he was living in exile, in 1932. I think it is very important, particularly with my [German] nationality, to remind ourselves where are we coming from, and what we want to prevent ever happening again. One of my motivations for working in the EU is to push for sitting down together to discuss problems instead of making war with each other.”

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About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London, who specialises in international news. She worked on daily newspapers for 16 years, reporting extensively on both general news and education. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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