The Ombudsman draws attention to the fact that some complaints lodged with this Office are based on, or refer to, failure by the Public Administration to reply or to reply within a reasonable time, to queries sent by email to public officers or other persons to whom the Public Administration Act applies.
The Principal Permanent Secretary, acting pursuant to powers conferred by the above mentioned Act, has issued directives to uphold standards for Service of Excellence offered by the Public Administration to the Public and to Public Employees.
Clause 3.2 of the current directives refers to Communication by Electronic Mail. This clause is being reproduced in its entirety for the information of the general public.
“Communication by Electronic Mail
3.2.1. Each incoming request for information or guidance received through e-mail is to be checked and acknowledged within 1 (one) working day from the time they are received. Whenever a received request is incomplete, the client shall be duly informed of the required missing data/documentation, within 1 (one) working day from the time of the receipt of the request.
3.2.2. Incoming requests/queries which can be addressed by the receiving organisation, and decisions thereof do not require further consultation, shall be replied in full within 1 (one) working day from their receipt. In such cases, the acknowledgment as per paragraph 3.2.1 is not required.
3.2.3. Incoming requests/queries which are of a complex nature and/or require consultation with internal/external stakeholders and therefore cannot be replied to within 1 (one) working day (as per 3.2.2 above), this shall still be acknowledged as indicated in 3.2.1 above.
The acknowledgement shall also include a short note indicating the expected timeframe by when a final reply shall be given.
When requests / queries are of a complex nature, a final reply shall be provided as follows:
- By not later than three (3) working days from the date of the receipt of the query;
- This timeframe may be extended to five (5) working days, for reasonably justified reasons;
- This timeframe may be extended up to ten (10) working days for exceptional and reasonably justified reasons.
3.2.4 In exceptional cases, the respective Permanent Secretary may concede a longer period, depending on the nature of the case; for instance in issues regarding due diligence, and legal aspects. In such instances, the respective Permanent Secretary should inform the Quality of Service Directorate of these exemptions.
In all cases requiring a delay in the provision of a final reply, for justifiable reasons, the client shall invariably be informed that their request is being processed and that owing to the nature of the case, more time is required for a final decision or reply to be provided. An indication of the expected time by which the client should receive a reply should also be provided. During exceptional circumstances, management need to ensure that the client is kept updated on a periodic basis, informing them that the query is still pending due to the given circumstance, and on the way forward.
3.2.5. In cases where requests/queries cannot be answered by the receiving organisation, or staff member, the latter shall send an acknowledgement to the client within 1 (one) working day from the receipt of the request/query informing them that the query shall be forwarded to the relevant organisation which can address the request/query. The name of the organisation to which the query will be forwarded shall be indicated in the notification sent to the client. Moreover, the client shall be provided with the name and contact number of the organisation or officer to whom the query is being forwarded. The organisation receiving the forwarded query shall abide by the timeframes stipulated in sections 3.2.2 – 3.2.3 above.
3.2.6. The provisions outlined under 3.2.5 above apply also to requests/queries received through generic e-mail accounts.
3.2.7 Generic email accounts shall have an automatic reply acknowledging receipt of emails in real time. Generic email accounts are to be accessed by more than one official to ensure continuity.
3.2.8. Automatic out-of-office replies should invariably be used when an officer is absent from the office for a period of one or more working days. In the out-of-office replies, officers shall indicate when they are expecting to be back in office, and the name and contact details of the officer who can be contacted in their stead. Out-of-office messages should be both in the Maltese and English languages.
3.2.9 Officers on telework or remote working are still expected to reply to their e-mails in the timeframes established by this Directive.”
It is hoped the concientious adherence to these directives will see to the total elimination of complaints which refer to delays in replies to emails.