South Korea’s National Ombudsman Institution, Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission (ACRC) is the only public agency in the country that handles all civil collective complaints against governments. ACRC’s collective complaint resolution effectively coordinates and mediates complicate large-scale complaints and suggests alternatives agreed by all parties. The system protects citizens from the infringement of rights and interests and prevents the occurrence of social conflicts.
Sharp rise in collective complaints with conflicting interests of various stakeholders. With the way of life changing rapidly and social relationship getting more complex, conflicts arising in the process of public policy implementation are intensified. Such conflicts and conflicting interests could cause collective complaints. In fact, over 3 million collective complaints were filed with ACRC in 2021, and when adding those filed with local governments, that number would rose to 7,500 a year.
Public dispute resolution between citizens and governments. In the past, collective complaints were mostly about simple disputes between a group and an administrative agency. However, now they have become very complex, involving multiple central governments, local governments, and public companies. ACRC is the only government agency in Korea that handles all collective civil complaints on government agencies. ACRC resolves long-unresolved collective complaints by bringing together relevant organizations and residents.
A case in point was a collective complaint that demanded the government to keep its promise of 79 years ago and to give an ownership to those who have cultivated the abandoned lands since the Korean War. From 2018, ACRC had conducted a large-scale mediation involving 10 central and local governments and public companies. And in 2020, this resulted in the enactment of a law that allows the government to nationalize the lands and sell to the farmers at low rates.
Flexible operation of collective complaint resolution according to characteristics. Depending on the characteristics of each collective complaint, ACRC uses various processes, from traditional complaint resolution (correction-recommending · opinion-suggesting) to alternative dispute resolution (mediation · settlement). First, for cases where interests of each party are simple and solution is straightforward, we recommend corrections when illegal or unfair administration was imposed. If that is not the case but the complainants still raised reasonable claims, we expressed opinions from their perspectives. For example, as for a collective complaint filed by 5,400 residents on noise issues, because it was quite clear that the noise came from a nearby road and which agency should take care of the issue, we recommended following acceptable noise limit under environmental risk assessment.
For cases difficult to be handled with general handling process, because they were not caused by illegal or unfair administrative disposition, but by conflicting interests of each party or legislative limits in public projects, we actively use mediation and settlement. For the past five years (2017~2021), 85,6 % of the collective complaints we resolved through mediation (282) and settlement (205). Settlement is recommended when a solution comes out during an investigation or when ACRC suggests settlement with necessary measures fair for all parties. For example, 1,210 residents raised complaints, demanding changes in highway construction plan for the safety of pedestrians. Because conflicts among the interested parties were not serious, the case was resolved through settlement between the concerned agency and all residents.
Mediation is used for a swift and fair resolution in big social impact cases at the request of the parties or by ACRC. ACRC mediates cases by ex-officio with appropriate methods depending on the complexity of the case, the extent of the conflict, resolution period, and need for further investigation. 5,074 residents filed a collective complaint regarding military runways near a nuclear power plant under construction, raising the risk of crash. According to a mediation, consultative body of all related agencies were set because long term discussion among experts is required to assess the safety of nuclear power plant and the need for military exercise. In a collective complaint filed by over 1,200 fishermen who lost their livelihoods due to the construction of the new port, during the mediation process, clear solution came out, requiring the local government to provide fishermen land at a low cost, and determining the land size and who will bear the construction costs. Consensus was made among the participants that the government should take care of the damage, and the solution was reasonable.
Institutional improvement to prevent collective grievances. If ACRC confirms each collective complaint was caused by unreasonable laws, it conducts a targeted survey nationwide to prevent similar complaints and improves the regulations concerned. For example, while investigating a collective complaint on a poorly managed routs at school entrance, ACRC confirmed similar cases throughout the country and conducted a nationwide survey with relevant agencies and recommended a total of 5,970 improvement measures to schools. This prevented the possibility of potential collective complaints related to the safety of commuting routes.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
- The system is the only collective complaint resolution in Korea that handles all disputes between citizens and governments through mediation and settlement. Other dispute mediation procedures in Korea are set up by sectors under individual laws. ACRC’s procedure covers all disputes across public administrations including construction.
- The system uses alternative dispute resolution in public dispute resolution. Because public sector mediation and settlement were usually conducted by the interested agency, a fair resolution were hard to be expected. In addition, because they were used as public discussion tool to prevent conflicts in big public projects, they could not practically remedy the rights and interests of those affected. ACRC resolves collective complaints through mediation and settlement fairly and independently as National Ombudsman. By producing results serving both public and private interest, our procedure could bring paradigm shifts in dispute resolution.
What is the current status of your innovation?
- The system has now fully grown to produce the tangible results. We are checking if the results are well received by citizens and complementing what is needed. For continuous follow-up on service quality, every month, we survey citizens who filed collective complaints and see if they feel the benefits. We also monitor cases we mediated twice a year and see if our recommendations are well implemented. If that is not the case, we check the reason and promote swift implementation. Now, we are promoting the enactment of Collective Complaint Mediation Act to strengthen benefits of mediation proven effective in collective complaint resolution.
- We are now spreading the innovation’s know-hows to the entire government agencies. We provide training on collective complaint resolution capacities for local government agencies each year. We also assess collective complaints handled by local governments and provide customized service to underperforming agencies.
Collaborations & Partnerships
Since, our collective complaint resolution covers conflicts between government and citizens, all administrative agencies are our collaborators and partners. Because relevant agencies and the agencies involved willingly accept our solution, we could develop a solution from the perspectives of citizens. From ACRC’s launce in 2021 till April 2022, 82.6% of our recommendations have been implemented. If we add recommendation being implemented (16.1%), the total implementation rate goes up to 98.7%.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Citizens who file collective complaints are the users and beneficiaries. For the past five years (2017~2021), through the system we resolved 569 of the 1,336 collective complaints filed, remedying the violation of rights and interests of 188,600 citizens. Also, relevant agencies were able to resume the long-halted policy projects that had been halted as the long-lasting opposition and collective complaints were resolved.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
- Since its launch in 2008 to 2021, ACRC has received and handled 4,056 collective complaints and 1,362 of them were resolved through mediation (600) and settlement (702). For the last 5 years (2017~2021), ACRC received and handled 1,336 collective complaints, among them 569 cases were resolved, with a resolution rate of 42.6%. 282 cases were mediated, 205 reached a consensus, 35 were issued corrective action, and 47 received opinions, and a total of 188,600 citizens were relieved.
- With accumulated know-hows on collective complaint-handling, the cases resolved increased. In 2021, the number of resolved collective complaints was 121, up from the previous year of 113. The resolution rate also rose to 57.6% from 54.8% of the previous year. People getting relief last year reached 48,200. And according to a survey of complainants of the cases resolved by the ACRC through mediation until August 2022, 95.8% answered that they were satisfied with the collective complaint resolution.
Challenges and Failures
- Too many collective complaints are filed with us. Since ACRC handles difficult cases that relevant agencies cannot handle, it takes long to investigate and resolve them. In the past 5 years (2017~2021), the annual number of collective complaints we received rose 25% (78) from 232 to 310, while the number of investigators did not increase.
- So, we singed an MOU with a research institution in 2018 to provide the investigators capacity-building training and upgraded our digital collective complaint processing system in 2020. We also supported local governments in creating and operating Local Ombudsman Institution, enabling them to handle primary complaints.
- As a result, from 2018 to August 2022, the number of Local Ombudsman Institutions rose to 70 from 37, and the average handling-days were down by 12.15% (11 days) to 77 days from 8 days. We will continue to seek ways not to miss the golden time for relieving citizens’ rights and interests.
Conditions for Success
- Implementation of mediation results should be legally promoted. ACRC’s mediation has the same legal effect as Civil Act’s compromise that enables demand for performance to the court if mediation was not implemented.
- Division of work should be applied to the collective complaint handling process. Under ACRC system, relevant agencies handle primary cases, and ACRC handles complicate cases.
- Investigators should have sector-specific expertise and alternative problem-solving skills. ACRC runs 10 sector-specific units including welfare/labor and defense/veteran affairs, where experts from outside are dispatched. Various in/external trainings on mediation and settlement skills are provided to ACRC investigators.
- Efforts should be made for continuous support from policy makers and citizens. ACRC is actively promoting the resolved cases and related policies to enhance trust and acceptance for the collective complaint resolution procedure and results.
- To replicate its system, ACRC assists local governments in setting up Local Ombudsman and investigating collective complaints. So far, 70 of the 243 local governments have created Local Ombudsman and are handling collective complaints.
- Jecheon City Ombudsman mediated 55 cases and settled one in 2021. Following is its best case resolved. The city announced a plan to build five more sewage treatment facilities at the entrance of downstream village to treat the wastewater in the village upstream. 57 of the downstream village residents filed a collective complaint. So, the local government cancelled the plan and decided to build a new sewage treatment in the upstream area. This required wastewater to be pumped upstream, which is inefficient and costly. So, the Local Ombudsman mediated the case, suggesting a new sewage treatment facility on the outskirts and shutdown of the one at the downstream village entrance. This satisfied both the residents and the local government.
- Collective complaint resolution is a new participatory problem-solving approach. With technological development, people suffering the same problem can file collective complaints much easier and it could mean a new citizen participation. Such a change of views could make innovation.
- Collective complaint resolution could regain public trust. Though the collective complaints by 1,200 fishermen in Q.4.1, with 175 protests and social costs of 4.5 billion KRW, at ACRC’s onsite mediation session, the fishermen said, “I now finally know that the country is serving its people.”
- Governance on collective complaint resolution, led by mediator, should be built. So, we had to take a control tower role and a trusted mediator for citizens. One of the reasons that we solved the 70-year-old complaint claiming the ownership of the abandoned lands in just two years was that we built a governance that involved all the relevant agencies and residents and continued discussions and negotiations.
- Our system shows that having an innovative idea is not as difficult as implementing the innovation. Many countries have continuously carried out government innovation, so public officials in charge often came to a sad conclusion that nothing innovative is left, asking themselves “Haven’t we tried everything?”
- However, through this project, we learned we do not need to start from scratch. When collective complaints could not find the right agency and process, ending up being a social conflict, we started innovation by making a small change in the traditional policy and process. By handling all collective complaints and actively using alternative dispute resolution technique such as mediation and settlement in resolving public dispute, we could make innovation in collective complaint resolution system and pursue the fundamental goal of serving the people.
- If you are trying to find an idea for better government, I hope the innovation of ACRC could guide you to an innovation.
- Evaluation - understanding whether the innovative initiative has delivered what was needed
- Diffusing Lessons - using what was learnt to inform other projects and understanding how the innovation can be applied in other ways
26 January 2023