The Role of Ombudsmen in Dispute Resolution (2001)

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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,

  • What are the operating characteristics in terms of their structure, financial
    and staff resources, authority, and how they interact with other offices
    responsible for handling employee complaints and providing employees
    assistance?
  • How do ombuds offices conform to professional standards of practice,
    particularly with regard to the core principles of independence, neutrality,
    and confidentiality?
  • What is known from formal and informal evaluations about the results of
    the programs?

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.
End Notes

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.

                        author

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