A public official who acts as an impartial intermediary between the public and government or bureaucracy, or an employee of an organization who mediates disputes between employees and management.
The Swedish legislature first created the position of ombudsperson in the early 1800s; the literal translation of ombudsperson is "an investigator of citizen complaints." This official was considered to be a person of "known legal ability and outstanding integrity" and was chosen by the Swedish parliament to serve a four-year term.
In modern times, an ombudsperson addresses concerns (such as administrative abuse or maladministration) that citizens or groups have about organizations or bureaucracies. In these situations, the ombudsperson acts as an impartial mediator between the two parties, providing a less threatening type of dispute resolution. For the ombudsperson to help reduce friction between citizens and the government, he or she must be viewed as trustworthy and neutral; the process will not work if one party believes that the ombudsperson is taking the side of the other party. Ombudspersons are bound by the oath of the Ombudsman's Association, which requires neutrality and confidentiality, requirements that are necessary to create trust between the persons involved in a dispute and the ombudsperson.
The power of the ombudsperson lies in his or her ability to investigate complaints of wrongdoing and then notify the public or the relevant government agencies, or both, of the findings. However, an ombudsperson cannot change or make laws, enforce any recommendations, or change administrative actions or decisions.
At the government level, the ombudsperson is appointed by the legislature of the state or county in which he or she serves. The ombudsperson typically has some law training, although a law degree is not required, and the ombusperson must be free of any political loyalties because the job requires neutrality. The goal of the ombudsperson is to assist the communication between the public and the government and help create solutions to problems that arise between the two parties, rather than punishing the wrongdoer. These solutions are aimed at reducing the possibility of similar problems in the future.
Friction between the public and government often can be attributed to the way laws or legislative policies are enforced. In these cases, the ombudsperson can try to reduce the friction by finding a more satisfactory method of carrying out the law. For example, even though police officers may legally enter a workplace to arrest an employee on charges of a crime, this practice can embarrass the employee and threaten her job, even if charges are later dropped. In this situation the ombudsperson would most likely confer with the police department to see if arrests for nonfelonies could be made safely out-side the workplace.
The ombudsperson's role in U.S. government is not clearly defined; not all states use an ombudsperson within their governmental agencies. Compared with ombudspersons in other countries, an ombudsperson in the United States has a larger role in the mediation and negotiation of settlements. Government branches such as social and child welfare agencies, prisons, law enforcement agencies, and consumer bureaus often have ombudspersons within their ranks.
Although ombudspersons generally work in government agencies, county governments, and city governments, companies also may employ an ombudsperson as a confidential, neutral contact with whom employees can discuss their concerns. In the mid-1990s more than 200 private corporations employed an ombudsperson. A corporate ombudsperson serves as the point of contact for dispute resolution in a corporation. The corporate ombudsperson, who is typically a senior official within the company, helps employees work through a variety of work-related conflicts, such as dissatisfaction with salary, unethical behavior such as theft or fraud, terminations, discrimination, and sexual harassment. In recent years issues such as government contract compliance and whistle-blowing have also been handled by corporate ombudspersons.
The corporate ombudsperson's position arose from corporations' desire to increase the job satisfaction of their employees, improve the communication between employees and management, and avoid litigation. As of 1992, there were more than 1000 corporate ombudspersons practicing. On average, a corporate ombudsperson will handle 200 to 300 cases per year and deal with 2 to 8 percent of the corporate workforce.
A corporate ombudsperson works with employees and management by reviewing management decisions and intervening in employee-employee and employee-management disputes. Generally, the methods the corporate ombudsperson may use include responsive listening, investigation, mediation, direct resolution, and upward feedback to management. The ombudsperson allows an employee to voice her concerns and advises or counsels the employee on the best way to deal with the situation. If necessary, as is often the case in allegations of sexual harassment, for example, the ombudsperson can investigate the situation further.
Because of the variety of situations a corporate ombudsperson deals with and because corporate cultures vary from one company to another, there is no standard job description or authority level for corporate ombudspersons.
Other organizations that employ ombudspersons are hospitals, school districts, and universities. In the mid-1990s more than 100 colleges and universities employed an ombudsperson, and more than 4000 hospitals offered ombudsperson services for patients. Many small businesses also have an office that handles client or citizen complaints and functions as an ombudsperson's office.
Ombudsperson confidentiality is important to the success of the office. If either party in a dispute believes that her concerns are not heard in confidence, communication with the ombudsperson will decline and the possibility of resolving a problem will also decline. Generally, communication with an ombudsperson is confidential. However, an ombudsperson is not required to maintain confidentiality regarding criminal behavior or conduct that threatens employee safety or company assets.
The question of whether an ombudsperson's communications with a party to a dispute are privileged (whether they may be protected from disclosure in court) is determined by courts on a case-by-case basis. Several cases have recognized an ombudsperson's privilege, including Shabazz v. Scurr, 662 F. Supp. 90 (S.D. Iowa 1987), which involved communications to a prison ombudsperson, and Kientzy v. McDonnell Douglas Corp., 133 F.R.D. 570 (E.D. Mo. 1991), which involved a corporate ombudsperson.
Gregory, Roy, and Philip Giddings, eds. 2000. Righting Wrongs: The Ombudsman in Six Continents. Washington, D.C.: IOS Press.
Hidén, Mikael. 1973. The Ombudsman in Finland: The First Fifty Years. Trans. by Aaron Bell. Berkeley, Calif.: Institute of Governmental Studies.
Rowat, Donald C., ed. 1965. The Ombudsman: Citizen's Defender. London: George Allen and Unwin.
Thompson, Brenda V. 1992. "Corporate Ombudsmen and Privileged Communications: Should Employee Communications to Corporate Ombudsmen Be Entitled to Privilege?" University of Cincinnati Law Review 61 (fall).
Wibbenmeyer, Kevin L. 1991. "Privileged Communication Extended to the Corporate Ombudsman-Employee Relationship via Federal Rule of Evidence 501." Journal of Dispute Resolution (fall).
Zagoria, Sam. 1988. The Ombudsman: How Good Governments Handle Citizens' Grievances. Cabin John, Md.: Seven Locks.