Sections within this essay:Background
Three Basic Types of Ombuds
Ombudsmen Programs as Impetus for Change
Attributes and Traits of Ombuds
Public Sector Programs
United States Ombudsman Association (USOA)
Insurance and Banking
Private Sector Programs and Organizations
International Ombudsman Association
National Credit Union Administration
Alaska Office of the Ombudsman
Arizona Office of the Ombudsman
Hawaii Office of the Ombudsman
Iowa Office of Citizens' Aid Ombudsman
Nebraska Office of the Ombudsman
The American Bar Association (Commission on Legal Problems of the Elderly
Asbestos Abatement/Management Ombudsman
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Ombudsman
National Credit Union Association Ombudsman
National Long Term Care Ombudsman Resource Center
SBA Ombudsman Hotline
The Ombudsman Association
United States Ombudsman Association
The term "ombudsman" is derived from the Swedish word meaning agent or representative. For as long as governments have existed, there has always been a parallel concern for the fair and equitable treatment of citizens and a guarantee that their rights are protected. The first public sector ombudsman was appointed by the Parliament of Sweden in 1809 with the express charter to protect individual citizen's rights against the excesses of government bureaucracy. The ombudsman was to receive and investigate citizen complaints against administrative acts of the government. The ombudsman concept spread across Europe and then to the United States in the 1960s. This was partly in response to the civil rights movement and citizen efforts for more openness in politics and government activities.
Typically, an ombudsman is a non-partisan, neutral, fact-finding person or office that takes no side in a dispute, but rather recommends solution. However, in broader usage, the term has come to mean more than just an agent or representative, but can also refer to an advocate or trustee who looks after the interests of a particular group or class of persons, and therefore serves as an agent of justice.
Within the United States, the term has taken on broader meaning that represents departure from the original Swedish model. While denoting an intermediary serving between citizens and the government, the term is now also used to describe any machinery adopted by private organizations (e.g., educational institutions of higher learning, large business corporations) or government to investigate complaints of administrative abuses. They may be been vested with general or special jurisdiction over specific governmental functions (e.g., corrections), and may exercise advocacy in their recommendations, if granted such authority.
Throughout federal and state governments today, public ombudsmen offices have been specially created (by legislative, executive, or judicial authority) to act as independent agencies monitoring the delivery of government services to certain populations (e.g., the elderly, disabled, juveniles, incarcerated adults, government employees, etc.) An ombudsman is generally independent (although a government employee), impartial, universally accessible, and empowered only to assess and make recommendations. The American Bar Association (ABA) defines an ombudsman as "a government official who hears and investigates complaints by private citizens against government agencies."
Traditional ombuds (the gender-neutral and simpler term used for "ombudspersons") operate in the public sector, and many are public employees. They typically address issues raised by members of the general public (or within their organization), usually concerning the actions or policies of a branch of government or of public officials.
Organizational ombuds are found in both public and private sectors. They typically address the concerns presented by members, employees, or contractors of a particular organization or entity concerning its policies or practices.
Advocate ombuds are also found in both public and private sectors, and also evaluate claims or complaints objectively. However, they typically are authorized or even required to advocate on behalf of individuals or groups found to be aggrieved. Importantly, and unique from other ombuds, an advocate ombud may have additional vested powers to represent an aggrieved party and litigate a problem on behalf of that party.
One of the key roles of an ombudsman is to consider how issues and problems in individual cases may require system-wide change in order to impact organizational culture. The independence of an ombudsman's office gives it the credibility, respect, and ability to aggregate individual grievances and cases, and use them to promote systemic change at the top administrative levels. A systems change approach emphasizes monitoring performance, assessing outcome, and ensuring public accountability. It also promotes cross-agency collaboration and partnership to provide coordinated and comprehensive service throughout the system.
Typically, ombuds are intermediaries who assess problems and recommend solutions or change. Even though they have limited authority to directly act on a problem, they nonetheless hold powerful positions, because resolution and solution is the quintessential objective of their profession. Without ombuds, an aggrieved individual must travel up the chain of command, management, or supervision to find a sympathetic ear or even an answer. However, since resolving complaints is not the primary function of management within an organization, a response to a complaint is often delegated to administrative staff, and the complaining party may get no further than a "thank you and we'll look into it and get back with you." response.
Conversely, the principal and full-time duty of an ombudsman is to provide a forum for the registering of a complaint or issue, then investigate and assess its merits, and offer recommendations or solutions to the respective parties. Advocate ombuds have additional authority to advocate the complaining party's position. Ultimately, the likelihood of more timely resolution is enhanced by the direct involvement of the ombudsman, whose duties and resources exist for the very purpose of such problemsolving.
Ombudsman programs serve a variety of functions, including educating the community; investigating allegations; monitoring programs, offices and facilities; conducting research; providing recommendations for change or improvement; and, if necessary and so authorized, bringing litigation.
Probably the most important attribute of the office/position of ombudsman is that of objectivity. This implies and includes:
- the exercise of discretion and confidentiality
- the ability to provide objective leadership
- an absence of any conflicts of interest
- a perseverance to cut through "red tape" and follow through with complaints without getting "stonewalled"
- an ability to dissect fact from hyperbole and get to the bottom line
- an ability to mobilize political power, even if acting "behind the scenes"
Additionally, ombuds should have:
- sufficient statutory authority to carry out investigations and mandate improvement
- ready access to documents, records, witnesses, and subpoena power
- full independence from the agency in which the ombudsman operates
- no interference by officials or administrators of the agency or service provider that is the subject of a complaint
- assurance that the complaining party will suffer no retaliation
- good-faith immunity from civil liability for investigations, recommendations, and mandates
- sufficient funding and resources
- qualified staff, including legal experts to investigate and substantiate violations and subject matter experts.
There are a few key areas involving the general welfare of the public, for which Congress has created federal ombudsman programs. They generally address the concerns of citizens whose status or condition may warrant extra protection or monitoring of rights. They include the elderly, those requiring long-term care in nursing facilities, juvenile offenders, and children in general. Other specialty ombudsman programs, such as for environmental protection or small business organizations, also have been established at the federal level.
Through special or earmarked funds and grants, federal monies assist many state ombudsman programs in several of the above areas of concern, as well as additional ones (such as workers' compensation or public transportation). In large jurisdictions, the monies may trickle down to local government. New York City holds the unique distinction of being the only geographic entity in the world to have an elected ombudsman.
Where there is no ombudsman office at the state level, inspectors general (including offices of an attorney general) and internal affairs programs provide much of the same function. Every state has an inspector general or attorney general, although such positions are more often concerned with systemic problems than individual grievances. However, when state inspectors general receive complaints from more than one individual, they may investigate for more systemic waste or fraud, or they may initiate class action suits on behalf of individuals with similar complaints. These organizations are parallel with ombuds in that they are intended to function independent of an agency's administration or influence.
Probably the largest and most important of the public sector ombudsman organizations is the United States Ombudsman Association (USOA). Founded in 1977, it is also the oldest in North America. It serves governmental ombudsman offices across the country as well as member offices in Canada and other global sites. It publishes a legislative model of characteristic official offices, in an effort to promote and establish ombudsman offices at the international, national, state, and local levels.
Under Title 42 of the United States Code (Public Health and Welfare), Congress created, among other things, several programs for older Americans. One of them was a provision for state Long-Term Care Ombudsman programs (42 USC § 3058g). Accordingly, even though federally-established and mandated, the program has been delegated to, and actually managed by, the states through block grants, special appropriations, foundation grants, etc.
Ombuds in this sector act as advocates for residents of nursing homes, board and care facilities, and assisted living residential setups. They not only investigate complaints, but also provide information to help persons find an appropriate facility for care, and help them get quality care.
Under the federal Older Americans Act, every state is required to have an ombudsman program to address concerns within long term care (LTC) system. These ombuds not only investigate complaints, but also are authorized to advocate for improvement in the system. The best way to find a particular state's LTC ombudsman is to go to the online Web site of the National Long Term Care Ombudsman Resource Center (www.ltcombudsman.org) and click on any individual state. Another resource, MemberoftheFamily.Net (www.memberofthefamily.net), provides information for approximately 16,000 Medicare/Medicaid-certified nursing homes. It also maintains a National Watch List of homes recently cited for violations or substantiated complaints. Finally, it has an Honor Roll of facilities found to be deficiency-free.
As of 2005, there were more than 25 child welfare ombudsman programs in the United States. They generally address "out-of-home" situations involving minors, such as residential care facilities (public or-phanages), public agencies providing health and dental care services, public foster care and placement agencies, and family social services agencies. Several states also extend ombudsman services to juvenile offender concerns (juvenile detention programs and juvenile corrections) under the broader umbrella of child welfare ombudsman programs.
Because children cannot legally speak for themselves, ombudsman programs involving them are generally advocacy-based, and are referred to as such, e.g., Connecticut's Office of the Child Advocate, or Tennessee's Ombudsman for Children and Families. Ombudsman advocates for children are mostly concerned with complaints or issues involving:
- overcrowded foster homes
- inappropriate placements
- dangerous environment placements
- services not being provided
- state agency visitation schedules not being followed
- lack of contact with caseworkers
- death or physical injury to a child
- education and training not available or insufficient
Starting in 1995, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) within the U.S. Department of Justice began offering "challenge grant" money to states for use in ten specifically-earmarked activities. One of those ten priorities was the establishment of state ombudsman offices to investigate and resolve complaints relating to providers of "out-of-home" care to children and youths, including juvenile detention and correctional facilities. Tennessee and Maryland were the first two states to be awarded this funding specifically for ombudsman programs overseeing juvenile detention and correctional facilities.
Some key issues facing juvenile corrections ombuds include:
- expansion and accessibility of support and services for special-needs, especially mental health needs
- access to mental health services for families of juvenile offenders, to prevent youth from being placed in detention or other alternative
- preventing the juvenile justice system from becoming a "safety net" for at-risk youth
- expanding prevention and detention programs
- moving confined females into facilities where they can receive gender-responsive services
- intervention to prevent court involvement for at-risk youths.
Likewise, a majority of adult correction facilities include some form of spokesperson representing the concerns of incarcerated persons, and this is often an ombudsman. By monitoring the relationship between inmates and prison officials, such programs have been successful at improving conditions within correctional institutions to ensure safe and humane treatment of incarcerated persons.
However, the success of an adult correctional ombudsman program has more risk and often depends on the authority of the ombudsman to pursue remedies and manage the competing interests of prisoners and officials. If inmates do not trust an ombudsman's ability to fairly address their complaints, or if prison officials feel that the ombudsman's recommendations are unreasonable, serious obstacles to harmonious relations may undermine the program. An ombudsman's statutory authority must be exercised with care to maintain balanced relationships among correctional administrators, staff, and inmates. However, when created and administered correctly, a correctional ombudsman program that remains independent of a department of corrections can palpably reduce tension within a prison facility and achieve many positive results in the overall running of the facility.
The International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC) (http://www.iaiabc.org/) maintains a detailed list of workers' compensation agencies, including ombuds. However, the most accessible, up-to-date, and probably the most complete of its kind is a Web site for the North Carolina Industrial Commission's list of U.S. workers' compensation agencies. Online Web browsers can go to http://www.comp.state.nc.us/pages/all50.htm and have instant access to all 50 states' and D.C.'s home pages for workers' compensation agencies, as well as contact information for state workers' compensation ombudsman offices.
The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) maintains an Office of the National Ombudsman to assist small businesses burdened with unfair or excessive federal regulatory enforcement, such as repetitive audits or investigations, excessive fines and penalties, retaliation, arbitrary or discriminatory regulatory enforcements, or other unfair actions by federal agencies. Working from a central office in Washington, DC, the SBA National Ombudsman covers only federal regulatory enforcement and compliance actions. Moreover, it can only assist small businesses, small government entities, and non-profit organizations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Small Business Ombudsman Clearinghouse and Hotline serves private individuals, small communities, small business enterprises, and trade associations representing the small business sector. The office provides public mailings to update recent regulatory actions. Special attention is directed toward answering technical questions and apprising the trade associations that represent small business interests of current regulatory developments.
Many major colleges and universities throughout the United States and Canada have a student ombudsman on campus. The ombudsman is generally responsible for assisting students with problems involving school rules, policies, and procedures. Most often, the ombudsman is another student, preferably a graduate student who knows and understands the functions of various offices and organizations on campus. Students are able to discuss matters confidentially, knowing that a student ombudsman will consider all sides in an impartial and objective way.
In 2002, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee reauthorized an ombudsman post within the Environmental Protection Abency (EPA). Congress originally established the EPA ombudsman in 1984 to receive complaints about hazardous waste. When the authorization expired in 1988, the EPA retained the ombudsman, but transferred the office to the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. The 2002 bill (S. 606) established an independent Office of the Ombudsman within the EPA. Under the Solid Waste Disposal Act, the ombudsman is authorized to render assistance, conduct investigations, make findings of fact, and forward non-binding recommendations to the EPA administrator.
Many individual states have separate offices for environmental affairs in which an ombudsman is available to investigate complaints of toxic waste or illegal hazardous material handling. However, a minority of states have independent offices dedicated for this function; most fall under the purview of other functions such as inspectors general.
To help investigate and enforce consumer protection laws, many states have established consumer affairs ombuds to provide the first forum for complaint and/or investigation. Arizona, California, Texas, and Virginia are examples of states maintaining such offices.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) Office of the Ombudsman handles inquiries involving problems or complaints related to the FDIC. Although FDIC insures almost all banks and savings associations in the United States, it may not be the primary regulator of a particular institution. Consumers should initially attempt to resolve a matter with the institution or the institution's primary regulator.
Recurring issues before the FDIC Ombudsman include those regarding bank application processes, the Bank Secrecy Act, and Regulation B and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), particularly relating to laws governing spousal signatures and the propriety of requesting information about an applicant's life insurance.
The International Ombudsman Association (IOA) was officially formed in 2005, following the merger of the University and College Ombuds Association (UCOA) and the Ombudsman Association (TOA). It is the largest international association of professional organizational ombuds, with over 500 members globally. The IOA offers professional training and education programs for practicing ombuds, and works to support and promote the profession through strategic partnerships with government agencies and other professional organizations.
The Ombudsman for the National Credit Union Administration investigates complaints and recommends solutions relating to regulatory issues that cannot be resolved at a regional level. The NCUA Ombudsman assists complainants with defining options and recommending appropriate actions. This ombud does not advocate for any party, but does insure confidentiality of all interviews and records, used exclusively for internal investigation and recommendation. The NCUA Ombudsman will not handle any matter that involves a conservatorship or liquidation; that is in litigation; that involves an enforcement action where a notice of charges has been filed; or one that is within the jurisdiction of the Inspector General.
In 1969, Hawaii became the first state to appoint an ombudsman. There are only five states in which the ombudsman office is a legislative agency:
P.O. Box 102636
Anchorage, AK 99510-2636 USA
Phone: (907) 269-5290
URL: [email protected]
740 15th Street NW
Washington, DC 20005 USA
Phone: (202) 992-1000
465 South King Street, 4th Floor
Honolulu, HI 96813 USA
Phone: (808) 587-0770
URL: [email protected]
Ola Babcock Bldg, 1112 East Grand
Des Moines, IA 50319 USA
Phone: (888) 426-5065
Room 807 State Capitol, P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, DC 20005 USA
Phone: (402) 471-2035
"Citizen Representatives: Statewide Ombudsman." SLGN Notes, 25 August 2004. Available at http://www.statelocalgov.net
Jones, Judith and Alvin W. Cohn. "State Ombudsman Programs." Juvenile Justice Bulletin, February 2005. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Prevention.
Sharn, Lori. "Ombudsman Post." Congress Daily, 27 September 2002. Available at http://www.GovExec.com
740 15th Street NW
Washington, DC 20005 USA
Phone: (202) 992-1000
Washington, DC USA
Phone: (800) 368-5888
Fax: (202) 566-2848
E-2022, 3501 Fairfax Drive
Arlington, VA 2226 USA
Phone: (202) 942-3040
1775 Duke Street
Alexandria, VA 22314-3428 USA
Phone: (703) 518-6510
1828 L Street NW, Suite 801
Washington, DC 20036 USA
Phone: (202) 332-2275
Washington, DC USA
Phone: (800) 368-5888
Fax: (202) 566-0954
203 Towne Center Drive
Hillsborough, NJ 08844-4693 USA
Phone: (908) 359-1184
Fax: (908) 359-7619
Madison, WI 53708-8096 USA
Phone: (608) 661-0402