- Gerard Vanderhaar
Ombudsman and Ombuds Offices
Updated April 2013
An ombudsman is an official role created by a political or economic system, so that people who are otherwise disadvantaged in dealing with a bureaucracy or institution will have a person available who can help to see that the system delivers on its promises. The role can have aspects of investigator and/or of mediator, and often differs significantly from one system to another in which the term is used.
A user may be either someone who is contemplating complaining to an ombudsman, or someone who is complained against.
Originally, an ombudsman was a high-level public official in a Scandinavian country. In the "classical" ombuds systems, the ombudsman, typically (and symbolically) paid as much as a Supreme Court Justice, has independent standing to investigate any function of government about which a citizen complains, and to seek redress when a failure of the system is found. Such an ombudsman's independent stature results partly from the prestige of the function when so defined, partly from a fixed term of office during which he or she may not be easily removed, and partly from the power to make a public report of findings.
In more recent uses of the term, most or all of these characteristics may be absent, and a second broad type of ombuds role, often referred to as "organizational," typically derives its authority not from a statute, but from a governance process internal to a specific organization. Generally, organizational ombudsmen operate under expectations that stress their potential mediative functions over their reporting functions, and many, in order to provide the maximum possible confidentiality for their discussions, deliberately keep few written records. But ombuds systems are in use in universities, newspapers, health care systems, corporations, and many other types of institution, and their circumstances vary quite widely. The common factor appears to be that all of these systems provide at a minimum a person to whom ordinary citizens or employees can go, who can cut through red tape and insist on an answer from relatively high levels of management.
Because of the wide variation in how the ombudsman's role is interpreted in different circumstances, a single example, or even any reasonably small number of examples of ombudsmen, is bound to be misleading. The "classical" ombudsman as defined above survives not only in Scandinavian governments, but also within certain institutions, including some city governments and a minority of universities which have ombudsmen, in which the "strong investigator" functions have been honored even though the role is defined by the institution itself rather than by external statute. But other universities' ombuds offices follow the "institutional" model, such that the ombudsmen in those offices may not be empowered to make public or even semi-public findings. Also, there are variations on both themes, including executive ombudsmen (similar to the "classical" ombudsmen, but with less independence because they are appointed by a governmental executive); citizen advocacy ombudsmen (who may be established by statute, but with authority limited to dealing with particular populations such as adults in long-term care, or children); and human rights ombudsmen, who in certain countries now have the right to bring suit and/or make binding decisions in oversight of democratic rights. There are even numerous officials in various settings who are called ombudsmen but who lack the independent stature characteristic of the proper uses of the term. To get the best out of an ombuds service, the potential user must therefore investigate which variety of ombuds principles are actually operating; assumptions are quite likely to prove wrong.
Because most ombuds systems prize confidentiality, the most common application of ombudsing, particularly to most people who have access to an American ombuds system, is for purposes of getting redress where they have been caught up in what appears to be a failure of the system to deliver what it has promised. The focus on confidentiality of process (generally) applies to all parties in a case, and American ombuds systems have often therefore taken on functions similar to those of a permanent internal mediator within a system. This is significantly different from the use of ombudsing in the original Scandinavian model, where the purpose is more to ensure responsiveness and responsibility by public officials; in those systems, officials' acts are not necessarily treated as confidential by the ombudsman.