Earlier this month the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) published guidance on handling complaints about discrimination. The guidance follows a number of critical reports by the IPCC, which found significant failings in the way police forces carried out such investigations and engaged with complainants. It raises an interesting question: To what extent do ombuds and other complaint handlers hold bodies they investigate to account for discriminatory behavior and decision-making?
Fairness is a key concept of the ombuds approach: both fairness of decision-making and fairness of the processes used to handle citizen-consumer ocmplaints. Yet ombuds schemes and other complaint handling bodies in the UK have generally been reluctant to tread into the territory of naming discrimination and human rights breaches in findings on complaints. Part of the reluctance is the concern that any determination of a breach of equalities and human rights legislation must be made by a court. Breaches of human rights can, however, inform findings of maladministration, but as noted by Buck et al in The Ombudsman Enterprise, this innovative use of the law has its dangers, not least the risk of judicial review.
Promoting and protecting human rights is the primary function of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), some of whom also have complaint handling roles. A current study of the role of NHRIs in dealing with human rights complaints is exploring how that complaint-handling role fits with the wider strategic function, and to what extent informal processes such as mediation are being used for these. (We were interested to note that the researchers are finding, as we did, that certain ADR and informal processes are ‘amorphous and difficult to isolate’ and that shared meanings and forms of, for example, mediation appear not to exist.) In some countries, the NHRI is also an ombud, but in the UK ombuds are separate organisations; the Council of Europe uses the term ‘national human rights structures’ to refer to those commissions, ombuds and police complaints mechanisms that have a human rights mandate but are not the accredited NHRI.
Last year the Equalities and Human Rights Commission published a guide to human rights in action. The section of the report on regulators, Inspectorates and ombuds (RIOs) includes several case studies, from the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and the IPCC, illustrating the use of the human rights framework in complaints handling and investigation.
Among those ombuds who have been proactive in identifying these issues in complaints is the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), which has published a number of reports highlighting the human rights and discrimination elements of many complaints, particularly about vulnerable people in care or hospital (for example, this one on disability discrimination). The former Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has stated that ‘the Ombudsman’s approach includes an overall concept of fairness, a fundamental commitment to the humanity of individuals and their right to equality in treatment and outcomes. Issues of discrimination and equalities underlie many of the complaints which come to the Ombudsman…’.
The PHSO makes clear in its general standards for determining complaints that it will expect a public body to comply with the equalities and human right legislation and will hold them to account:
‘It is not the role of the Ombudsmen to adjudicate on matters of human rights law or to determine whether the law has been breached: those are matters for the courts. The Health Service Ombudsman’s Principles of Good Administration do, however, state that the Principle of ‘Getting it right’ includes acting in accordance with the law and with regard for the rights of those concerned, and taking reasonable decisions based on all relevant considerations….
If the public body is unable to demonstrate that it has had regard for, and taken account of, human rights, the Ombudsmen will take that fact into account when considering whether there has been maladministration and/or service failure.’
The Northern Ireland Ombudsman has been in the forefront if this work and has worked closely with the NI EHCR to develop a manual and training for complaint handlers to help them identify human rights issues in complaints they receive.
The UK Financial Ombudsman Service has published briefings on the need for businesses to comply with the Equality Act, such as this one. One of the issues is, as FOS points out, ‘consumers rarely articulate their complaint as “discrimination” – or invoke the Equality Act. More often than not, they’re simply frustrated at being unable to access the services they want or need to – and feel that the business’s processes are unnecessarily inflexible and impersonal.’
‘If ombudsmen want a broader canvas on which to paint their distinctive contribution human rights is probably the best, perhaps the only, place to turn at present.’ Nick O’Brien
An optimistic view is that ombudsmen in the UK will ‘increasingly contribute to wards the resolution of human rights issues in public administration, both in conducting investigatory work and in the office’s relations with other bodies’ (Buck et al, The Ombudsman Enterprise, 2011). Nick O’Brien, a human rights specialist and ombuds-watcher, has noted the increased consumerism plaguing ombuds schemes and argues that ombuds can mark themselves out among complaint-handling bodies by having a focus on discrimination and human rights issues: ‘If ombudsmen want a broader canvas on which to paint their distinctive contribution human rights is probably the best, perhaps the only, place to turn at present.’
How far do complaint handlers go in identifying discrimination or human rights as issues in complaints? How do ombuds and complaint handlers use the legal framework for discrimination and human rights in their casework and findings? Perhaps these questions need further research.
by Varda Bondy and Margaret Doyle
In October 2014, we launched (together with Carolyn Hirst) a mapping study titled ‘The use of informal resolution approaches by ombudsmen in the UK and Ireland ’. We discussed at length whether to use the words ‘ombud/s’ or ‘ombudspersons’ rather than ‘ombudsman/men’, but decided on the latter to avoid the title itself becoming the centre of attention rather than the content of the report.
However, we felt compelled to touch on this question at the launch, which was attended by a number of ombudspeople as well as academics. After presenting one aspect of our findings, concerning the multiplicity of terms used by schemes to describe the same processes and identical terms to describe different ones, we added a closing remark on the problematic matter of terminology in the use of the term ‘ombudsman’ itself. This included an assertion that the word ‘man’ in Swedish means exactly the same as it does in English, and that the argument that the term is gender-neutral therefore does not wash.
That brief remark at the launch attracted responses on Twitter:
‘Term ombudsman dated and needs challenging. Sexist?’
‘I prefer “ombudsperson” to “ombuds” like in America’
‘I prefer ‘ombuds’ but am fine with other terms.’
A much-respected former ombudsperson wrote to us with a series of thoughtful suggestions designed to circumvent the problem. While recognising that the term ombudsman has been ‘de-masculinised elsewhere as in the South African FAIS Ombud and US university Ombuds, it is not making much headway in Europe or the [rest of the] Commonwealth, and… we have to live with the word as it is, not least because it is ‘now included in various statutes’ (emphasis ours).
He suggested the problem is in the plural; referring to a mixed group of men and women as ‘ombudsmen and ombudswomen’ is laborious, and the term ‘ombudsmen’ clearly denotes that the singular ‘man’ part of the word is masculine, as opposed to being an integral part of the combination of sound ‘ombudsman’. His proposed solutions included:
- Avoid using the generic plural ‘ombudsmen’. ‘Ombudsman should be confined to use either as a non gender specific noun, or as an adjective.’
- When referring to entities or services, use ‘ombudsman schemes, offices, or services’.
- When referring to those who lead ombudsman offices, use ‘heads of ombudsman offices’ or ‘ombudsman post-holders’.
- When referring to individuals who perform ombudsman decision-making functions, in formal speech or writing, use ‘ombudsman decision makers’.
- When referring to a mixed group of those heading or working in ombudsman schemes, in more informal or light-hearted speech or writing, use terms such as ‘ombuds-folk’, ‘ombuds-people’ ‘ombuds-workers’ or ‘the ombudsman community’.
We welcome any such engagement, especially where it recognises the problematic nature of the terminology, but we are perplexed as to why the ombuds community is so intent on engaging in both linguistic and conceptual acrobatics by insisting that ‘man’ does not mean ‘man’.
The NI Ombudsperson Bill
At the risk of generating groans of ‘oh not this again’, we feel compelled to take issue with the disappointing stance taken by the Ombudsman Association (OA) Executive Committee in their response to the recent consultation on the proposed Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsperson (NIPSO) Bill, which, as the title suggests, refers to the office holder throughout as ‘ombudsperson’.
The terminology is not in fact part of the consultation at all, but the OA Executive Committee highlighted its objection to it in its consultation response of 28 May 2015:
“The Association shares concerns expressed by others that using the title ‘ombudsperson’ will cause confusion amongst the public and stakeholders at a time when the title ‘ombudsman’ is becoming more recognised and trusted. The Association would therefore urge the Assembly to amend the title of the proposed body to ‘the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman’.”
The Bill itself makes clear that using the term ‘ombudsperson’ was a deliberate choice, not an oversight: ‘Name of the office
- The Committee preferred that the new office should be known as the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) as opposed to Public Services Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (PSONI).
- During the drafting of the Bill the Committee decided to replace Ombudsman with Ombudsperson as the latter is unambiguously gender neutral.’
We suggest that it would be one thing for the OA not to take a view one way or the other. But to include such a robust objection to the terminology in the proposed legislation appears to be a political stance, aimed at stifling discussion. Instead, the OA could have congratulated the Committee and the Northern Ireland Assembly on its forward thinking in using a truly gender-neutral term that is not yet widely accepted, and if necessary, promote a discussion on other suitable alternatives.
We queried this aspect of the response and expressed concern that the underlying principle of fairness (required for OA membership and cited in the response) does not appear to include equality and anti-discrimination. It may be that the Executive Committee members do not believe the terminology raises equalities issues. They are instead focusing on the need to avoid confusion and protect the ‘brand recognition’ of the term ‘ombudsman’.
‘…the ‘brand’ that the term ombudsman invokes is an important one. The Association’s criteria for ombudsman membership incorporates independence, fairness, effectiveness, openness and transparency, and accountability. Our members have cultivated the public’s awareness of these values to encourage the use of their services.’
Our question is therefore: is the ‘man’ of ‘ombuds-man’ essential to the brand?
First, let’s consider the etymology: Proponents of retaining the ‘man’ format often cite the Scandinavian origins of the term. The OA did just that in its response to the NI consultation: “The word ‘Ombudsman’ is Scandinavian and means ‘representative of the people’. The term is gender-neutral in origin and in common usage throughout these islands, including by other schemes with jurisdiction in Northern Ireland.”
The ‘ombudsman’ entry on Wikipedia explains: “An indigenous Swedish, Danish and Norwegian term, ombudsman is etymologically rooted in the Old Norse word umboðsmaðr, essentially meaning “representative” (with the word umbud/ombud meaning proxy, attorney, that is someone who is authorized to act for someone else, a meaning it still has in the Scandinavian languages). … Modern variations of this term include “ombud,” “ombuds,” “ombudsperson,” or “ombudswoman,” and the conventional English plural is ombudsmen.”
If you enter ‘ombudsman’ or ‘ombudsperson’ into Google Translate and translate from English to Swedish, you get ‘ombuds’. Conversely, Google Translate converts ‘ombud’ in Norwegian to ‘ombudsman’ in English. This suggests that in Scandinavia, it is the ‘ombud’ part of the term that distinguishes an ‘ombudsman/woman/person’ from other offices such as adjudicator or commissioner.
We do not argue that we must emulate uses of this term in other countries at all costs, but as Scandinavia is regarded as the cradle of ombudsmanry (another controversial term) and is cited as an authority for ‘man’ not meaning ‘man’, we asked the experts. First, here are some Swedish examples of alternatives to the term ‘ombudsman’, revealed in a quick Google search:
- Sök närmaste ombud = find the nearest ombud
- Sveriges Socialdemokratiska Ungdomsförbund i Uppland söker ombudsman/kvinna = Swedens’ Social-democrat Youth Association seeks ombudsman/woman
- Vänsterpartiet-Norrbotten söker en ombudsman/kvinna 2006 = Vänsterpartiet (the Left Party) in Norrbotten seeks ombudsman/woman
What’s happening in Norway?
For a more in-depth look we explored what is happening in Norway. First, we Googled the Norwegian Wikipedia entry on ‘Ombudsmann’, which we translate to read: ‘Ombudsman (or ombud, which in fact is a label/description of a task one has a duty to undertake) is a person commissioned to protect interests and rights of individuals or groups.’
With that in mind, we wrote to the Norwegian Equality and Anti-discrimination Ombud (Likestillings- og diskrimineringsombudet; the ending ‘et’ in Norwegian stands for ‘the’), to ask about the ‘mann’ (‘man’ in Norwegian) part of the word which they had discarded from their title. In response we were told that theirs was the first scheme to adopt the term ‘ombud’ in place of ‘ombudsmann’ when established in 2006.
They sent us the White Paper for the law establishing the Gender Equality Ombud. The document uses the term ‘ombudet’ (the ombud) rather than ‘ombudsmann’ throughout the document, apparently without any need to engage in a terminology discussion or to justify the choice of title, despite being the first scheme to be so named formally.
This made a refreshing departure from what happened in 1979 when a committee was established to consider statutory amendments to the office of the Norwegian Parliamentary Ombudsman. The Select Committee considered the appropriateness of the title ‘Ombudsmann’ and discussed its pros and cons. It noted that the title does not say anything about actual function of the position holder, and importantly, that the term was not gender neutral. On the other hand, it was noted, the title was well incorporated in both Nordic and international usage.
The Parliamentary Ombudsman himself argued at the time that the Ombudsman office was an entirely personal arrangement, in that the Ombudsman must take a personal decision on all cases and cannot delegate decisions to others; the term ‘Ombud’, on the other hand, is more about the office than the person. In other contexts where the expression ‘Ombud’ is used, it is talking about institutions or positions where it is not essential to distinguish between office and person.
It is worth noting that these arguments do not nowadays apply in that most ombudspeople do not decide all the complaints that come before them and that the use of ‘ombudsmen’ by the OA on their website could be read variably as a title attached to the office holders or the scheme, as in:
‘Ombudsmen exist to deal with complaints from ordinary citizens and consumers about most public bodies and some services in the private sector.’
In the end, despite recognising that the term was not gender-neutral, the Select Committee considering amendments to the Office of the Norwegian Parliamentary Ombudsman rejected the minority view that the time has come to replace ‘sivilombudsmann’ with ‘sivilombud’, and concluded that the traditional term was to be retained on the basis that it was so well established that there is no basis for change.
This was 36 years ago.
Fast forward 16 years to 1995, when another discussion paper, evaluating the Children Ombud (established in 1981), offered a different insight into the modern understanding of the term ‘ombud’ vs ‘ombudsman’. Part 3.1 of the document explains that ‘the term ‘ombud’ is a positive concept, used in connection with resolution of social inequality…. In everyday use, ‘ombud’ refers to positions that carry particular activities of representing, protecting or promoting specific interests.’
After a brief reference to its history with the establishment of the first Swedish Ombudsman in 1809, it goes on to say that:
‘The term “ombudsmann” is one of the few Nordic words that entered the language internationally. In Norway, gender equality has gradually led to the use of the gender-neutral term “ombud“.’(emphasis ours)
‘In Norway, gender equality has gradually led to the use of the gender-neutral term “ombud”.’
The document uses the term ‘ombud’ throughout to denote the office, as in: ‘Ombudene kan ha mange ulike funksjoner’ i.e. ‘the ombuds can have many dissimilar functions’. Hence, the office of ‘Children Ombudsman’ is called in Norwegian ‘Barneombud’,i.e Children Ombud, and the institution is referred to as ‘barneombudsinstitusjonen’ – the children ombud institution.
We accept there is clearly no consensus even in Scandinavia with regard to replacing ‘ombudsman’ with ‘ombud’. So while the Children Ombud (Barneombud) became the model for the equivalent Swedish office established in 1993, the term ‘ombud was not adopted’, and it was instead named ‘Barnombudsmann’ – Children Ombudsman. However, as the above discussions and examples demonstrate, it is not viable to state that ‘ombudsman’ is gender neutral on the basis of its Scandinavian origin, meaning and current use.
Why does it matter?
Research by sociologists and linguistics experts indicates that language does affect behaviour and attitudes. Language, and particularly titles of office, that presume maleness as the norm (‘chairman’, ‘policeman’ etc) have an impact in the context of underlying gender bias in society and women’s lack of representation in public roles. The growing body of research validating the concern is set out in this piece by two academics at the University of Kent:
“For example, when people hear masculine generic language, they predominantly visualize pronoun referents as being male (e.g., Gygax, Gabriel, Sarrasin, Oakhill, & Garnham, 2008; Hamilton, 1988; Moulton, Robinson, & Elias, 1978; Ng, 1990; Stahlberg, Sczesny & Braun, 2001). Other research suggests that sexist language perpetuates male privilege (Kleinman, 2002), influences children’s gender schemas (Hyde, 1984), limits the perception of vocational choices for women (Briere & Lanktree, 1983), influences perceptions of status and competence (Merkel, Maass, & Frommelt, 2010), and even makes women feel ostracized (Stout & Dasgupta, 2011).”
“…research suggests that sexist language perpetuates male privilege, … influences children’s gender schemas, … limits the perception of vocational choices for women, … influences perceptions of status and competence, … and even makes women feel ostracized.”
Douglas Hofstadter, a professor of cognitive science in the US, wrote a stinging satire on the opposition to adopting gender-neutral language. In “A Person Paper on Purity in Language (1985)”, he used what he admitted was a shocking analogy to expose the absurdity of presenting ‘man’ suffixed words as gender-neutral. In the essay, Hofstadter replaces ‘man’ with ‘white’. Have a read and see what effect it has on your assumptions.
We don’t believe there’s a right or wrong answer to this. But we’d like to encourage people to discuss it rather dismiss it. There are plenty of respectable ombuds organisations around the world that recognise the equalities issues of the term and use alternatives that have, over time, become well established. That alone suggests it’s worthy of discussion.
Let’s look at two option: ‘ombud/s’ and ‘ombudsperson’:
In Scandinavia, South Africa and New Zealand, the term ‘ombud’ is singular. In Norway:
In South Africa:
In New Zealand:
In the US, the terms ‘ombud’ and ‘ombuds’ are used interchangeably:
*This office uses all four terms—ombud, ombuds, ombudsperson, and ombudsman
- Use of the term ‘ombuds’ goes back at least to 2006, when the well-known OmbudsBlog was set up:
‘Ombud’ is often used in the context of higher education, not just in North America, where it is the prevailing term, but in Europe as well. For example, the Studentombudet for Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences (HIOA) mentions her ‘ombuds’ work on Twitter, although she refers to herself as an ‘ombudsperson’ on her blog.
‘Ombudsperson’ is recognised by the online Free Dictionary: “A public official who acts as an impartial intermediary between the public and government or bureaucracy, or an employee of an organisation who mediates disputes between employees and management.”
- This term is used by the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children (ENOC)
- ‘Ombudspersons for children’ is the term used by the EU for the European Forum on the Rights of the Child
- It is also the term used by the UN Security Council
- It is used interchangeably with ‘ombudsman’ by the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman
Conclusion, and an invitation to join the conversation
The OA argues in its response to the Northern Ireland consultation that use of the term ‘ombudsman’ is important to protect the brand recognition of these services and schemes. And as discussed in Parliament in February, ‘ombudsman’ is on the list of protected titles (‘Sensitive words and Expressions Regulations’) maintained by the Department for Business:
‘While anyone is free to set up a business providing ADR, ‘ombudsman’ is a sensitive word whose use in a company or business name requires prior approval by the Secretary of State.’
But is it not the ‘ombuds’ part of the term that is meant to be protected? If the intention is that only ‘ombudsman’ should be legally protected (although we note that the Regulations say that ‘that the specified words and expressions are specified in all their plural, possessive and (where relevant) feminine forms’), then even if there were legal protection of the title here in the UK, there’d be no barrier to someone setting up as The Telecoms Ombudsperson, or The Ombud for Health Services, or National Consumer Ombuds Service. It seems disingenuous to take such a literal stance, and contrary to the intention of efforts to protect the meaning of the ombuds role.
Surely it’s time we had this conversation in the UK? Tell us what you think.