What Are the Common Attributes of Ombudsman Programs?

We continue our discussion of ombudsman programs. So far, we have discussed why an organization might consider an ombuds program and what a program can offer an organization beyond those services available through traditional functions. We have also discussed the predominant models of programs. Different models seem to fit better in different situations. Notwithstanding the wide variety in program models and variations even within those models,  there are essential characteristics that most recognized programs have in common.
In today’s installment, we discuss the core characteristics that all ombudsman programs tend to have in common.


What are the Shared Essential Characteristics of an Ombudsman Program?

Regardless of the particular model, all ombudsman programs share three important essential characteristics: Independence, Impartiality, and Confidentiality. Depending on the environment in which the particular program operates, each of these essential characteristics may be adapted to the context of the program.  There are standards that apply each of these essential characteristics. The American Bar Association, the United States Ombudsman Association, and the International Ombudsman Association, among others, have each developed standards for the operation of ombudsman programs. The most general discussion is included in the ABA Standards for the Establishment and Operation of Ombuds Offices, promulgated in February 2004. This document generally describes these essential elements as follows:
Independence: The ombuds is and appears to be free from interference in the legitimate performance of duties and independent from control, limitation, or a penalty imposed for retaliatory purposes by an official of the appointing entity or by a person who may be the subject of a complaint or inquiry.”
Impartiality: While there is significant variation in the approaches, all ombudsman models conduct some fact finding to varying degrees. Regardless of how limited or extensive this aspect of the function may be, to be effective, the ombudsman must be genuinely regarded as free from any initial bias involving the people involved or the issue in question. The models differ in their requirements regarding continued neutrality through the process.
Confidentiality: As described in the ABA standards, an “ombuds does not disclose and is not required to disclose any information provided in confidence, except to address an imminent risk of serious harm. Records pertaining to a complaint, inquiry, or investigation are confidential and not subject to disclosure outside the ombuds’s office. An ombuds does not reveal the identity of a complainant without that person’s express consent.”

Our next posting will explain the often challenging role of confidentiality in the ombudsman’s work.

Bruce MacAllister, J.D.
Senior Principal, BES
March 2011

About Bruce MacAllister

Bruce MacAllister is the founder and Executive Director of Business Excellence Solutions. He holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Chemistry and Biology and a Juris Doctorate degree. He has over thirty years of experience working with people in conflict, and training and coaching people through conflict situations. He works nationally and internationally with a wide variety of clients, including national departments, research and development organizations, institutions of higher education, non-profits, and individual businesspeople. He has been an ombudsman, executive level manager, project and program manager, trainer, and attorney. Click the "About Us" page to see his full biography. (http://bizexteam.com/index.php/about-us/.)
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