New research resource on ombuds

Research Handbook on the Ombudsman

Edited by Marc Hertogh, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies, University of Groningen, the Netherlands and Richard Kirkham, Senior Lecturer in Public Law, University of Sheffield, UK

We’re pleased to say that our chapter on gender-neutral terminology has been included in a new international collection on research on the ombud institution. The handbook runs to a chunky nearly 550 pages and makes three claims about current research on ombuds:

  • there has been a lack of sustained and interconnected academic attention to ombuds research – not in terms of overall numbers of publications but in the lack of intellectual coherence. As a discipline, ombuds research is ill-defined and uncoordinated and is top heavy with prescriptive and descriptive research
  • there has not been enough testing through empirical research of the practical impact of the ombud institution, and more is needed that evaluates and scrutinises the claims made in favour of the ombud model
  • the ombud is not a static institution, and research has an important tole to play in encouraging constant redesign

The collection is organised into four parts.

  1. Part I, Fundamentals of the Ombudsman, gives an overview of the history of development  and classification of the ombud and ideas for its future
  2. Part II, The Evolution of the Ombudsman, looks at several ombud models across the world and interrogates their evolution and practice
  3. Part III, Evaluation of the Ombudsman, explores the theoretical literature and empirical research on ombuds
  4. Part IV, Ombudsman Office and Profession, asks questions about how well the ombudsman sector is functioning, discussing issues of standards, professionalisation and branding

Our chapter on terminology appears in Part IV and develops our thinking (from blog posts here and here) about how the name of the institution and the office-holder links with branding and a kind of identity crisis gripping the public-sector ombuds in the UK. It is interesting to note how the various contributors, and the handbook overall, deal with the issue of gender-neutral terminology throughout. The editors explain the approach they have taken in the Research Handbook:

One area of debate is alluded to within the book specifically by the Bondy and Doyle chapter and implicitly throughout, namely the question of ‘title’. The bulk of the book, and indeed the title, retains the terminology ‘ombudsman’, albeit for many of the authors with some reservation. Around the world associations of practitioners regularly refer to themselves as ‘ombudsman associations’, and the modern heritage of the institution is most widely attached to its Swedish variant, justitieombudsman. Until recently, most writing on the topic, referred to the institution as the ‘ombudsman’ and most schemes, albeit by no means all, adopt a variant of the title ‘ombudsman’. But in the English language the term, and even more so its plural ‘ombudsmen’, has an unfortunate, and unhelpful, gender-specific connotation. Our response in this collection has been to dedicate a chapter of this collection to exploring this issue in some detail and to generate further debate (Bondy and Doyle, Chapter 26). Each author, however, has been left free to deploy whichever terminology they feel most comfortable with.’

The introductory chapter is available online here.

More information is available from the publisher’s website:

The public sector ombudsman has become one of the most important administrative justice institutions in many countries around the world. This international and interdisciplinary Research Handbook brings together leading scholars and practitioners to discuss the state-of-the-art research on this increasingly prominent institution.

Traditionally, research on the ombudsman has been conducted from a purely prescriptive or (legal) descriptive perspective, mainly focusing on the ombudsman ‘in the books’. By contrast, this book illustrates how empirical research may contribute to a better understanding of the ombudsman ‘in action’. It uses new empirical studies and competing theoretical explanations to critically examine important aspects of the ombudsman’s work. The Research Handbook is organized in to four parts: fundamentals of the ombudsman; the evolution of the ombudsman; evaluation of the ombudsman; and the ombudsman office and profession. Featuring case studies from Europe, Canada, Asia, Africa, Latin America and Australia, chapters provide a comprehensive global perspective on the issues at hand.

This unique Research Handbook will be of great value to researchers in the fields of public law, socio-legal studies and alternative dispute resolution who have an interest in the ombudsman. It will also be a valuable resource for policymakers and practitioners, particularly those working within ombudsman offices.

Ombuds gender pay gap – an update

It’s a good time to reiterate that gender pay equality isn’t about who gets the bigger ice cream (important though that is)

It seems that ice cream season is coming around again, so let’s check the latest figures on the gender pay gap and see how the ombuds are doing in terms of levelling out the discrepancies in scoop size in their employees’ ice cream cone payslips.

Last year ombudsresearch looked at how ombuds are doing on the gender pay gap, following the implementation of the Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017. Under that Act, all private-sector and most public-sector employers with 250 or more employees are required to publish data on the differences in average hourly pay for men and women in their organisation – the gender pay gap.

As we said in that post last year, the gender pay gap identifies potential structural inequality, not inequality or discrimination at an individual level. Reporting on the gender pay gap reveals patterns and trends about the proportion of women in senior positions, which in turn gives insights into potential barriers for women in the workplace, including the effects of prejudice and unconscious gender bias and of caring responsibilities (for children, elderly parents, etc) still primarily being taken on by women. Identifying a gap in pay can help organisations see that there’s a problem that needs addressing.

Given that ombuds have a key role in ensuring that organisations and public bodies act according to principles of equality, it is revealing to see how they themselves rank in terms of gender pay equality.

The latest figures have been analysed and published by the BBC in a handy online checker. As with last year’s figures, the returns cover only companies of more than 250 employees, which in the UK ombud world includes the Financial Ombudsman Service, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman and Ombudsman Services. All three are below the latest average of an 8.35% pay gap in favour of men, but the differences between them are interesting.

  • Top marks go to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, which has not only reduced its median pay gap but has seen a swing in favour of women – from 9.8% in favour of men last year, to 0.2% in favour of women this year. That’s a major swing. Although it means only that women are paid £10.02 for every £10 paid to men, not a major difference, it puts the PHSO in among the 14% of all reporting organisations who have a pay gap in favour of women.
  • Ombudsman Services has made some strides, reducing their pay gap slightly from 4.3% in favour of men last year to 3% in favour of men this year.
  • The Financial Ombudsman Service, sadly, has increased its pay gap, from 6% in favour of men last year, to 7.2% in favour of men this year. This means that for every £10 paid to men, women are paid just £9.28. That puts FOS, along with the OS, in among the 74% of reporting organisations that pay their male employees more than their female ones.

A gender pay gap is not the same as equal pay, and having a gender pay gap is not evidence of intentional discrimination. The complex causes of a gender pay gap are discussed in our previous post on last year’s figures. We noted that although the figures for ombuds were at or below the national average, the problem needs to be recognised and addressed across the organisations. Training, such as training in unconscious bias, can help address the pernicious prejudices that we all have and that can manifest themselves in recruitment and promotion decisions. Organisationally, it is important to identify the factors leading to the gap and to review approaches to recruitment, retention, promotion, job grading, and coaching opportunities.

Most importantly, as we stated last year, a shared commitment among ombuds to eliminating the gender pay gap would be a great start.