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April 13, 2001
The Honorable Daniel K. Akaka
Ranking Member, Subcommittee on International Security,
Proliferation, and Federal Services
Committee on Government Affairs
United States Senate
Dear Senator Akaka:
During the 1990s federal agencies have had to deal with an increasing number of complaints from their employees, particularly complaints of alleged employment discrimination. However, the formal administrative processes to deal with complaints have long been criticized as adversarial, inefficient, time consuming, and costly. Such flaws in the processes can destroy relationships and be corrosive to an agency’s productivity and its work environment. As a result, federal agencies have been expanding their human capital policies to include alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes to resolve disputes in a more efficient, timely, and less adversarial manner. In doing so, some agencies have established ombudsman offices. In the workplace, an ombudsman (also referred to as an “ombuds”) provides an informal alternative to existing and more formal processes, employing a variety of techniques and often “working outside the box” to deal with conflicts and other organizational climate issues.1 An ombuds not only works to resolve disputes but is also in the position to alert management to systemic problems and thereby help correct organizationwide situations and develop strategies for preventing and managing conflict. In this regard, an ombudsman office can be an integral part of an organization’s human capital management strategy to create a fair, equitable, and nondiscriminatory workplace.
Because of the role that ombudsmen can play in an agency’s management of its human capital, you asked that we provide the Subcommittee with an up-to-date perspective on the role of ombudsmen in resolving workplace issues. Specifically, in your letter of July 10, 2000, and in subsequent conversations with your office, you asked that we develop information to answer the following questions:
1. What is the number of ombudsman offices at federal agencies addressing workplace issues, and what kinds of issues do they address?
2. At selected ombudsmen offices,
3. How are federal ombudsmen provided with guidance and what means exist for sharing “best practices” and “lessons learned” among ombudsmen offices?
The number of ombudsman offices dealing with workplace issues in federal agencies is small but, according to federal ADR experts, is expected to grow. Based on our research, and in consultation with a panel of federal ADR experts, we identified 22 workplace ombuds offices in 10 agencies. We cannot be sure, however, that this is a complete list because there was no complete and verified source of federal ombuds offices. Federal ombuds offices deal with a wide range of workplace issues, from helping employees get answers to questions about agency policies and cutting through “red tape” to more serious situations, such as allegations about employment discrimination, other prohibited personnel practices, and workplace safety issues. Ombuds work to resolve disputes between individuals as well as within work groups. We were not able to identify any governmentwide data regarding the various issues ombudsmen deal with and the frequency with which these issues are raised.
In studying the ombudsman offices at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), and the U.S. Secret Service, we found some common approaches in how they operated as well as some differences. Common among the three ombudsman offices was their broad responsibility and authority to deal with almost any workplace issue, their ability to bring systemic issues to management’s attention, and the way in which they worked with other agency offices in providing assistance to employees. But how they were structured to carry out this authority varied. Ombuds offices at NIH and IBB were independent entities of the agency director’s office while the Secret Service ombudsman was a component of the agency’s Office of Human Resources and Training. Of the three offices, only the NIH ombudsman office had its own budget. Each of the ombudsmen was a high-level manager—General Schedule (GS) grade 15 or senior executive—and the ombudsmen at NIH and the Secret Service had defined or limited terms. Assistant ombudsmen were full-time permanent positions at two offices (NIH and IBB) while being a part-time, collateral duty position at the Secret Service. Two of the offices (IBB and Secret Service) drew ombudsman candidates from within their ranks while NIH recruited dispute resolution practitioners from within and outside the agency.
There are no federal standards specific to the operation of ombudsman offices, but program literature and the ombudsmen at the three offices we studied described how they adhered to the standards of practice for ombudsmen established by professional organizations. These professional standards revolve around the core principles of independence, neutrality, and confidentiality. One way in which the ombudsman offices said that they maintained independence is by having a reporting relationship with the agency head. The NIH and IBB ombudsmen reported to their agency director’s office. Although the Secret Service ombudsman did not directly report to the agency director, he had “unfettered” access to the director’s office, according to agency officials. The three ombudsman offices also asserted their neutrality in their dealings by not taking sides in a dispute but advocating for resolution, achieving results, as one ombudsman put it, “through persuasion.” The ombudsman offices were explicit about providing for confidentiality in their dealings by not keeping a log of visitors’ or callers’ names or formal case records and by destroying any informal notes.
Although the recommended standards of professional organizations generally state that ombudsmen should be accountable for their activities and results, the three agencies gave only limited attention to evaluating their ombuds programs. However, officials at the three agencies generally viewed the ombudsman programs as beneficial. They said that the ombuds offices, through their early intervention, were particularly helpful in resolving workplace conflicts quickly and in lightening the caseloads of other offices dealing with complaints and grievances. The ombudsmen estimated that they resolved between 60 and 70 percent of their cases. In addition, the ombudsmen and other officials identified lessons they learned in establishing and operating an ombuds office. Chief among these is the need for top-level support. Another important lesson officials at NIH and IBB noted was the importance of collaborating with stakeholders on ombuds program design and operation. Officials at the three agencies also said they learned that, in addition to being trained and skilled, the ombudsman must be respected and have credibility with management and staff alike. Officials said it was also important to publicize the services of the ombuds office. Having a diverse ombuds staff was something that officials said was important at each of the three agencies that we studied. Although there is no formal federal guidance on the standards of practice for the federal ombuds community, there are several forums for ombudsmen to share information informally about best practices and lessons learned. Outside the federal government, professional groups that have developed and published professional standards of practice also provide forums for information sharing and training. Within the federal community, the Coalition of Federal Ombudsmen (an informal group of federal ombuds) and the Interagency ADR Working Group (authorized under the Administrative Dispute Resolution Act to encourage and facilitate agencies’ use of ADR) are venues for information sharing and training. Some federal ADR experts are concerned that among the growing number of federal ombudsman offices there are some individuals or activities described as “ombuds” or “ombuds offices” that do not generally conform to the standards of practice for ombudsmen. As a result, the Coalition is considering developing guidance that would follow the standards of practice put out by the outside professional groups. In addition, the Interagency ADR Working Group, which has the authority to issue policy guidance on dispute resolution issues that have a governmentwide impact, has begun a study of federal ombudsman that may lead to guidance on standards.
We are recommending that the Attorney General, as chairman of the Interagency ADR Working Group, see that any guidance resulting from the Working Group’s study of federal ombudsmen (1) be clearly defined and transparent and, in addition to including the core principles of independence, neutrality, and confidentiality, include standards for accountability and (2) contains information about how this new guidance can be consistently applied within the federal ombuds community. In his comments on a draft of this report, the Attorney General said that he will ensure that the Working Group’s study includes guidance as we are recommending.
1. There are two kinds of ombudsmen. In addition to ombuds who deal with workplace issues, which are the subject of this report, there are other ombudsmen who handle concerns and inquiries from the public.
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