“We want to be a leader in local human rights in Barcelona”

30/11/2021 - 11:34

Ombudsman’s Office. The Full Council approved the appointment of David Bondia as the new Barcelona Ombudsman on 29 September. Bondia has an extensive background in the defence of human rights.

We spoke to David Bondia, the new Barcelona Ombudsman, about the participatory process which took him to office and about his vision of citizen participation.

We spoke about his election through a non-binding participatory process, and his vision of the new term of office in terms of citizen participation.

The participatory process to elect the new Ombudsman started with candidates being put forward by organisations. Who proposed you?

Organisations put forward the candidate they wanted to: I ran for election five years ago and wasn’t intending to this year, but initially I was approached by the same organisations that proposed me five years ago and I accepted. And you can address me informally.

Why did you stand for election?

I’m from the Institute of Human Rights of Catalonia and the university, where I work on human rights matters. I had worked as an advisor to municipal councils and local ombudsman’s offices. I felt I had some important things to do. In this election process I also saw several names of candidates linked to political parties. I’ll be engaging in politics of course, but the politics of human rights, not driven by party politics.

What was your experience of the process?

It’s a complex process, but with plenty of guarantees: firstly the candidacies are presented, after that the citizen participatory process is opened through Decidim, and the last stage was the decision by political parties on the Full Council. The fact that the public’s vote is non-binding is disappointing for part of the population. Personally, I think we all need to reflect on that.

Yet being the candidate with the most votes meant the political parties opted for you?

I believe so. Like five years ago, when the candidate backed by the most organisations was from Convergència, they fell well behind in votes and consequently the political parties did not consider them.

I managed to get nearly half of the votes in the process, but either way it would be good to strengthen people’s knowledge of the Ombudsman’s Office, make people aware of what this institution can do for citizens and promote the election process so that even more people vote. If you’re clear on who you’re voting for, what you’re voting for and what you’ll get, then participation is assured!

How would you improve the election process for the Ombudsman’s Office?

I think the process to elect the Ombudsman in other European cities is very interesting: they set up local ombudsman tribunals to asses a process for change in another city, and they produce evaluation reports on the profiles presented by political parties.

That makes it much easier to be familiar with the different candidates. The reports serve to preserve the independence of candidates, and are made public during the process.

Reports on candidates and on feedback from a process should be offered to the parties involved and also to the public to ensure complete transparency.

You keep noting that people are unfamiliar with the work of the Ombudsman. What is the Ombudsman’s mission?

The Ombudsman must control, in the good sense of the word, Barcelona City Council in everything which affects citizens’ rights. If you think the City Council has behaved incorrectly towards you, you can make a complaint to the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman’s Office will study it and, if you’re right, will recommend measures to the City Council to change its behaviour.

The other way, which is what I’d like to boost, is ex-officio action: before the complaint reaches the Ombudsman, the City Council needs to be warned that there are situations where they should be doing better: we’ve opened three of these in one month.

The first is the conflict with binge drinking in groups, where we want to be on the participation board, where we’ve also called for the board to have substantial representation from young people, and at the same time we’re producing an ex-officio study on those same young people and what measures we can propose.

The second is with electricity bills, because even though the Ombudsman’s Office has no powers over supply companies, we’ve turned this around by considering that the bill affects the City Council, in lighting streets and buildings. Therefore, for the sake of transparency, we’ve asked how the rise in the cost of electricity will affect the City Council. We’ve also asked about energy poverty and asked the City Council how they will tackle the energy poverty to come.

The third ex-officio action is for young people with no family figures: by being in Barcelona, they’re also our youngsters. We’ve asked the City Council what measures they will take, within their powers and over and above assistance, when these youngsters reach the age of 18, when there is a huge lack of protection for them.

Let there be no doubt: we will not be doing supplementary work. Barcelona has some superb organisations and we will be working with them: on the electricity bill we’ll be working with Aliança contra Pobresa Energètica; on the issue of young people with no family figures, with Casal dels Infants, Punt de Referència and experts; and on the binge drinking, we‘ll be coordinating with city anthropologists.

So is the Ombudsman a warning cry for the City Council?

No. It’s criticism with proposals. As the Ombudsman’s Office we have to support the City Council in correcting shortcomings and providing alternatives. We want to do a lot of work on good practice: there are plenty of things done elsewhere which could be brought here, and by generating good practice in Barcelona to export to other places. For Barcelona to be a leader in local human rights! And people in Barcelona must be familiar with the Ombudsman’s Office! A communication campaign has already been commissioned to improve this.

And what’s the Ombudsman going to do in terms of participation?

We’ve noticed that everybody moans about participation, but we don’t get complaints from citizens about it. That means they don’t see us as a place to turn to on participation, and consequently we’ve got to work on that.

How? The Ombudsman functions when the rule is already established. We’re thinking about a step before all regulations that affect local human rights: if a rule is to be taken before the Full Council, we’d like to give a non-binding opinion before that. The first: a new citizen participation regulation is about to be adopted. We met, they explained it to us and we asked to be able to give an opinion, which we have already conveyed with the aim of improving the new regulation. Many of the challenges and proposals from our input have been accepted by the City Council’s legal services.

We’ve noticed that the return needs to be better: communications, given in a very short time frame; a need for improvements in education and on the digital divide too, and joint work with the Commission for Regulatory Protection and the Ombudsman’s Office. We back Decidim for participation, but it’s not right at all for a sector to be excluded.

It’s also important to note that a complaint is not negative. Somebody who is complaining is somebody who wants to change things. There’s no need to treat a complaint in isolation either: they can be grouped together and processed. I understand that participation can’t be a remote right: it can’t always be the same ones participating, and you can’t ask somebody whose basic needs are not covered to participate. You need a policy of understanding rights as a whole: covering basic needs and fostering participation.

And if people don’t complain to the Ombudsman about participation, what do they mainly complain about?

They come to us about matters relating to mobility, fines from the City Police, taxes, urban planning issues, housing, teaching, cleaning, the environment, social services. But we need to start seeing what issues they don’t approach us about, and who doesn’t approach us. Because there are also groups who don’t come to us, such as migrants, companies and commerce.

To encourage people to complain to the Ombudsman’s Office: what are the main successes of the Barcelona Ombudsman’s Office?

From the last term of office, the big success was the inclusive children’s play areas. Also the by-law on terraces: the by-law on terraces is very different in each district and we’ve called for them to start being unified. The Ombudsman has also called for better access to Barcelona’s cemeteries on public transport.

David Bondia will be satisfied with this five-year mandate if the Ombudsman’s Office…

…ends up as an example for local human rights in Barcelona. That means that citizens and the City Council alike see the Ombudsman as able to generate discourse and action to transform the reality of human rights at a local level.