The concept of the ombudsman evolved during the Swedish enlightenment in eighteenth century where democracy, humanitarianism and individual liberty were emphasized against state absolutism, injustice and abuse or misuse of public power. The surge of democratic values placed prime importance upon the personal responsibility of officials towards their citizens. According to Sir, John Robertson the Ombudsman institution is seen as a valuable insurance against falling back into old habits, and an influential oversight organization to ensure that the bureaucracy has a more humane approach.

The concept is now widely accepted and practiced in all the democratic and welfare states. The justification for setting up this institution also stemmed from the realization that with more and more delegation of powers to the state institutions and administrative wings of the government, the oversight by the parliament and judiciary on the abuse of power by the state functionaries was not enough and there was a need for an arrangement outside the judicial review which addresses public complaints through an expeditious and cost free process.With the passage of time it was also realized that with the expansion in the administrative structures of the government and introduction of culture of specialization one Ombudsman at the national level was not enough and there was an imperative need to have separate Ombudsman for the most important sectors within the administrative structure.

Pakistan established the institution of Federal Ombudsman in 1983. Since Revenue sector of the economy was the most important contributor to the economy and the people often complained about the abuse of power by the tax collecting officials, the government set up the institution of Federal Tax Ombudsman in 2000. How useful and effective this institution is in addressing the complaints of the tax-paying individuals and firms affected by the maladministration of the tax collecting functionaries actually dawned on me when I had a personal experience in this regard. I had approached the FTO in regards to inordinate delay in the tax refund by the concerned authorities. Amazingly the problem was settled within two weeks as the tax advisor in FTO instead of resorting to lengthy correspondence with the tax authorities and repeated appearances, personally discussed the issue with the high ups of the Income Tax Department. That actually is my motivation to contribute this piece of writing. As a journalist and a columnist I felt it obligatory to contribute my bit to the creation of awareness among the people on an issue of public interest.

According to the annual report of FTO the institution settled 2713 complaints during the year 2019 and the average period of complaint disposal was 45.3 days which by any standards is a commendable effort in line with the concept of expeditious and cost free justice. The FTO not only acts on the complaints formally filed by the complainant but also takes suo moto notice of any maladministration by the tax authorities. The complaint can be filed personally, through courier service, email, online and fax.

The cases with which FTO deals under the purview of maladministration include: a decision of the tax authorities contrary to law, rules or regulations or in contravention of an established practice or procedure; a decision based on irrelevant grounds involving, failure or refusal for corrupt or improper motives such as bribery, jobbery, favouritism, nepotism and administrative excesses; neglect, inattention, delay , incompetence of the tax administration in the discharge of duties and responsibilities; serving of repeated notices or prolonged hearings involving assessment of income or wealth, determination of liability of tax or duty, classification or valuation of goods, settlement of claims of refund, rebate or duty drawback or determination of fiscal and tax concession of exemptions; willful errors in the determination of refunds, rebates or duty drawbacks, deliberate withholding or non-payment of refunds, rebates or duty drawbacks already determined by the competent authority; coercive methods of tax recovery in cases where default in payment of tax or duty is not apparent from record etc. The complainants can file their complaints on the above issues provided the matter is not sub judice.

It is pertinent to point out that FTO not only deals with complaints in regards to maladministration but also identifies areas requiring attention of FBR and sends its recommendations to remove systemic shortcomings and improving governance.

The FTO as part of its awareness campaign has run media campaigns from time to time supplemented by creation of social media content besides publishing quarterly newsletter which is sent to government offices, trade bodies, chamber of commerce and industry and tax bar associations. E mails and SMS messages are also sent to the tax payers. Frequent interaction with representatives of Chambers of Commerce and Industry and Business and Trade organizations and other stakeholders is also a regular activity of the FTO.

However my personal feeling is that the public profile of FTO is not as enviable as it should be due to the sterling contribution it is making in addressing the complaints of the tax payers. Majority of people do not have an ink-link of what it really does.

Our media which represent the society and is expected to uphold its pluralist credentials needs to pay attention to the institutions of the state which are working to promote the public interest. The general public and the potential tax payers besides the people already in the tax-net also need to be made aware of the available avenues to get their grievances against maladministration of the revenue authorities settled.

Unfortunately our media is excessively focusing on the never-ending political wrangling and in the words of Prime Minister Imran Khan on whipping up a well-orchestrated propaganda against the government. My considered view is that while the media as a watch-dog against the government, public institutions and public servants has the responsibility to pinpoint their inadequacies, shortcomings and maladministration, it also has the obligation to project and highlight the positive things done in the public interest. FTO in its present role is a symbol of good governance, the hall mark of which is paying attention to the difficulties and problems of the people and resolving them without too much hassle. It needs greater media attention.