Research Handbook on the Ombudsman
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.
- Part I, Fundamentals of the Ombudsman, gives an overview of the history of development and classification of the ombud and ideas for its future
- Part II, The Evolution of the Ombudsman, looks at several ombud models across the world and interrogates their evolution and practice
- Part III, Evaluation of the Ombudsman, explores the theoretical literature and empirical research on ombuds
- 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.‘
Being ‘ombidextrous’: revisiting questions from our mapping study of the use of informal resolution approaches by ombudsPosted: May 21, 2017
In advance of the next biannual conference of the Ombudsman Association (on 25-26 May 2017, at Loughborough University), we thought it would be worth republishing our conclusions from our mapping study of informal resolution approaches used by ombuds. We conducted this mapping research in 2014, and no doubt practices and approaches have moved on since then for many of the organisations in our study. The issues, however, remain as pertinent as ever, and as unresolved.
By Varda Bondy, Margaret Doyle and Carolyn Hirst
Conclusions and discussion points
Ombuds are themselves a type of informal resolution mechanism when seen in the context of ADR, being alternatives to judicial determination in court or tribunals, as pointed out by several of those responding to the survey. This study explored the informal processes that make up part of the overall ombud complaint-handling work. These are primarily the processes that do not involve investigation, adjudication and determination, the ombud’s traditional role. For some respondents this presented some confusion, used as they are to describing their overall process and approach as ‘informal’.
This was a scoping project designed to produce a descriptive mapping study, identifying the schemes that use informal resolution and those that do not, the reasons for doing so and the nature of those processes. Where possible, figures are provided in respect of various aspects of practice, but these need to be read as illustrative of models and trends rather than as a definitive representation of each individual scheme; even during the relatively short duration of the project in the first half of 2014 there were changes in the membership of the Ombudsman Association, new annual reports were published, and some schemes were in the process of changing their informal resolution processes.
The focus of this report is naturally on the 36 of 48 participating schemes that use some form of informal process, but in order to understand the nature of this aspect, it is necessary also to investigate the schemes that do not. In respect of some such schemes, for example those of a regulatory nature, it may appear obvious at first blush that informal resolution is inappropriate. Yet bodies of similar functions presented a variety of different approaches.
The main themes to emerge from this survey are:
It is apparent that some of the common terms used by ombuds mean different things, and conversely, similar terms are used to describe quite different processes. For example, does ‘mediation’ mean a full process conducted by a qualified mediator, or a settlement brokered by way of shuttle negotiations by a case officer on the basis of their assessment of what is a fair or expedient outcome? We came across both of these understandings of mediation.
We also found that mediation was not necessarily synonymous with early or even informal resolution. In at least one scheme, mediation takes place only after an investigation has been carried out and the complaint upheld. Similarly, one scheme refers to ‘conciliation’ as the informal part of the process, whereas another describes it as a formal process.
Does terminology matter? We think it does. The proliferation of terminology, at times contradictory, can be confusing for complainants as well as to complaint handlers as the terms used can also impact on how they exercise their function.
It is possible that consistent use of dispute resolution terms can lead to better matching of complaint to process, resulting in better outcomes – a point made by the National Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisory Council of Australia (NADRAC). NADRAC also suggests that common terminology contributes to consistent and comparable standards and provides a basis for programme development, data collection and evaluation. Carrying out any comparative analysis of ombuds and complaint handlers is difficult when, as we have found, they each report using different terminology and different understandings of the same terms.
What principles guide investigators in deciding whether to use informal resolution? What criteria, if any, are applied? We established that only a minority of schemes have some form of written criteria setting out when informal resolution can be used, and of these, only three are published and available in the public domain. Guidelines adopted informally by schemes include numerous references to case handlers’ judgements based on experience or knowledge, but little of what might be considered criteria.
On the whole, it appears that this is often a matter for individual caseworkers to decide. Is it a matter of, as one former ombud has said, ‘Like the elephant or the rhinoceros, you know one when you see one.’?
In addition to the difficulties of navigating the terminology applied, arriving at a common understanding of the machinations of specific process terms (mediation, conciliation, etc.) proved problematic. In other words, it was hard to tell what happens in practice. We believe that the majority of schemes employ shuttle negotiations by telephone and in writing, but only a handful of participants described the process in detail.
Publication of outcomes
Transparency and accountability are principles that all ombuds subscribe to. Indeed, the vast majority of schemes publish annual reports containing a variety of aspects of their work. Invariably, these include figures about the volume of complaints received and how they are addressed and concluded. However, there are nearly as many ways of presenting those (and other) facts as there are schemes, with the result that meaningful comparisons are almost impossible.
Discussion points and further research
This report is intended to raise questions for discussion and to identify areas for further research. Below are key discussion points arising from the study, as well as suggestions for issues arising from the study that require further research.
Describing, not defining
Should we move away from the problems of terminology and instead of defining the processes used by ombudsmen and other complaint handlers, should we attempt to describe them? This is the approach of the NADRAC and of the EU ADR Directive. Both identify three types of ADR process: for NADRAC, these are advisory, facilitative, and determinative; for the ADR Directive, they are advisory, proposing, and imposing. Into these three fall the specific ADR process terms such as mediation, conciliation, early neutral evaluation, adjudication, arbitration, etc.
It may well be, as NADRAC believes, that it is impossible, and indeed inappropriate, to prescribe how such descriptions should be used by ADR providers. However, it seems sensible to require at the very least (and NADRAC supports this) that ‘descriptions of the actual process used by any provider should be available in forms that are easily understood by the users of the service’.
In 2010, the Office of Fair Trading, in a summary guide to dispute resolution systems for consumer redress in the United Kingdom, stated that:
‘A useful distinction can be drawn between procedures in which a neutral third party proposes or makes a decision (ombudsmen, adjudicators, arbitrators) and those where the neutral party seeks to bring the parties together and assist them in finding an agreement by common consent (conciliation, mediation). Which of the above procedures is most appropriate will depend on the nature of the dispute to be resolved.’
Such a distinction suggests a binary framework – the procedure is either one in which a decision is proposed or imposed by the scheme or one in which the parties reach an agreement by consent. It is a familiar framework. Applying it to ombud procedures, however, presents some difficulties as it does not reflect the actual practice of most ombuds, most of whom appear to be practising what the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council, in its 2012 report ‘Putting It Right’, defined as
‘an independent person assessing the claims made by each side and giving an opinion on a) the likely outcome in court or tribunal [or, it could be added, likely ombudsman decision], b) a fair outcome, and/or c) a technical legal point. It is non-binding, and the parties decide how to use the opinion.’
Consensual agreements are different in an ombud context than they are in other areas, such as civil mediation generally. In this context, consensual agreements are not only of interest to the parties involved in the complaint, but potentially have wider significance. They are not made in a vacuum but in the ‘shadow’ of the ombud’s authority.
Ombuds have a place in the wider ADR sphere, but perhaps as an ADR process in itself (‘ombudsing’?) alongside mediation, conciliation, arbitration, etc. Unless we understand a process of ‘ombudsing’ as a distinct and defined process to sit alongside mediation and arbitration, for example, we have a confusing lack of clarity about what it is that ombuds are actually offering process-wise. What is missing, and appears to be needed, is a classification of the processes used by ombuds and their complaint-handling cousins.
Suggested framework of processes used by ombuds
In 2011 the Law Commission identified three ways in which ombuds dispose of complaints: ADR, investigation and report, and dismissal. The latter ties in with one of the ‘resolution’ methods identified by some respondents to our mapping survey: rejection of the complaint. However, for the Law Commission ‘ADR’ included, in the majority of cases, the ombud informing the public body of the complaint made and encouraging the public body to resolve the matter. This might be described as a ‘referral back’.
In our mapping survey, we have identified a further ‘resolution’ process used by ombuds and complaint-handlers: advice to the complainant, possibly including signposting to another organisation.
It is possible to set out, in the ombud context, a spectrum of ‘resolution responses’ being used:
- referral back
- advice and signposting
- bringing the parties together to facilitate an agreement by consent
- hearing from the parties and proposing a solution
- investigating and making (imposing?) a determination
Given the important role that ombuds have in improving service provision and complaint handling by the bodies they investigate, one could add, on the top and bottom of the above list, prevention and lesson learning.
But once a complaint has been accepted and is being looked at by the scheme, what are the key processes used to ‘resolve’ them? They appear to fall under the three broad headings in the final bullet points of the list above:
- bringing the parties together (process) to facilitate an agreement by consent (outcome)
- hearing from the parties and negotiating (process) and proposing a solution (outcome)
- investigating (process) and making, or imposing, a decision (outcome)
This echoes both the NADRAC descriptions and those in the EU ADR Directive.
Training and skill set required
A question for ombuds and complaint-handling schemes is whether caseworkers have the appropriate skills needed if they want to increase the number of complaints resolved through informal processes and improve the quality of the process. The use of quicker and less formal methods of complaint determination, in addition to the more traditional method of adjudication, is broadening the skills set that complaint handlers need to possess. And different skill sets need to be valued by the organisation as a whole:
‘Getting our managers to think more about coaching and shifting that behaviour away from the legalistic kind of checking… and that has an impact on our board as well because it means that our board would need to recognise behaviours that normally they don’t see… the organisation would… in the past… probably value people with that… legalistic bent whereas in the future the real value comes from people who are good at talking and fixing things and that’s quite a change.”’
What skill set is needed for a resolution focus, and is it different from that needed for investigation and determination? If so, what specific training might be needed to ensure a consistent approach to informal resolution?
Is it desirable, and possible, to develop agreed best practice (in process, training, data recording)?
An earlier study of ombuds’ use of ADR concluded with a number of suggested principles – including clarity about the processes, transparency about the criteria for using different processes, and informed consent by the parties – and suggested actions, including staff training and assessment and evaluation of outcomes achieved through informal resolution processes. Is it time to revive interest in the development of best practice guidance?
Is informal resolution a necessary form of filtering in an age of austerity?
To some extent, is informal resolution is a form of ‘filtering’ – identified in a recent report as ‘a major part of the work of complaint handlers’? Filtering can involve any or all of the functions of resolving, signposting (directing a complaint to an alternative appropriate route of redress) and rejecting.
Is informal resolution a sign of failure?
Two schemes that have a low rate of informal resolution, and one scheme that is said not to be using informal resolution at all, told us that a low rate reflects good complaint handling practice on part of body complained against. Conversely, a high rate of informal resolution by ombuds suggests a failure in the system, in that complaints capable of being resolved informally should be resolved at an earlier stage. Is this an indication of a mood change among ombuds in their attitude to informal resolution?
Does greater use of informal resolution pose a threat to ‘justice’?
Can it be said that the methods of informal resolution of complaints provide the information that ombuds need in order to fulfil their role in promoting service standards, first-tier decision-making and good administration? And for ombuds dealing with private-sector providers and services, does informal resolution put them at risk of being assembly lines of mass case processing, a sort of ‘Complaints ‘R Us’?
This mapping study has shined a light on the informal processes used by ombuds and other complaint handlers in the UK and Ireland. It is a limited light, and there is more to learn and study.
First, we have noted that many organisations with a significant role in complaints handling – whether as part of administrative justice or consumer redress – were not included in this mapping survey. Broadening out the mapping work to include these other relevant organisations would be helpful.
Although we have focused on the ombuds community, we are sensitive to the overlaps between ombuds and other routes to redress for complainants. There is much opportunity to share learning between courts, tribunals and ombuds, for example. It would be useful to explore the extent to which ombudsmen might adopt the ‘mapping’ factors for identifying the appropriate dispute resolution route for tribunal claims.
Specific aspects covered in this research require closer examination, including:
Process: There is a need for in-depth research on how the process actually works and to identify the appropriate realistic methodology for studying the journey of a complaint from initial acceptance, through resolution and outcome.
Outcomes: How is ‘success’ defined in informal resolution context? We have examined the use of informal resolution, but its success is an area for further exploration. There is also a need to examine the views held by users of ombud services (both complainants and those in the departments and organisations that are the subject of complaints).
Criteria: For many schemes, informal resolution appears to be the default approach to complaint handling, with a move to investigation if the complaint did not resolve at this stage of the process or if there was some reason to investigate. On reflection, a more informative and potentially productive question to have asked in our survey would been ‘What are your criteria for deciding whether or not a complaint needs to be investigated?’
Timescales/speed: This survey did not ask specifically about timescales of informal resolution processes, but what we were told was intriguing and worth further study. Only a handful schemes told us they have a timescale (time limit) for attempts to informally resolve a complaint (ranging from one hour to one day mediations, to ten working days).
Classification of disputes
One further question arising is whether some processes are more suitable for some types of complaint, and whether there is scope to developing classifications that can be used across the range of schemes. There is also a need to explore whether the same category of complaint is dealt with differently by ombuds in different jurisdictions. Such classification could help in developing guidance on what disputes and complaints, and in what circumstances, are best suited to particular resolution approaches.
In the ombud context this differs from guidance on the suitability of mediation and other forms of ADR because ombuds have a wider, authoritative role. They are not simply dispute resolvers but have the additional (and some would say more important) responsibility to influence good practice by bodies in jurisdiction. They do this through their determinations as well as through their ‘good offices’ – persuasion, guidance, and feedback.
The classification of disputes may be needed in order to identify a comprehensive approach for influencing how cases should be allocated to a route to redress – what forum for which fuss. This might involve categories of complaints – e.g. fundamental rights cases, in which adjudication is necessary, and, at the other extreme, ‘cases where the claimed entitlements could not themselves satisfy the claimants and where the interests of all parties might be better served by a negotiated resolution’. Endorsing the view that a proportionate and appropriate system must involve a range of dispute resolution techniques, the AJTC identified a number of principles and mapping factors to help identify the suitability of a specific dispute resolution process, such as early neutral evaluation, mediation, and traditional hearing.
These are only some of the aspects considered in this report. Our aim has been to present a nuanced snapshot of the ethos and practices of informal resolution by ombuds at the time of conducting the research. We hope this will further the understanding of current issues and research needs in this field, and lead to greater consistency in the use of terminology and processes in future.
 This is the final section of our report ‘The use of informal resolution approaches by ombudsmen in the UK and Ireland: A mapping study’, which was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and supported by the University of Essex and De Montfort University. We have republished it here unchanged aside from replacing ‘ombudsman/men’ with ‘ombud/s’ when used in a generic sense.
 National Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisory Council (2003) ‘Dispute resolution terms: The use of terms in (alternative) dispute resolution’ (Canberra: National Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisory Council): 1.
 Jefferies, R (2001) “A review of mediation”, The Ombudsman, Issue 15 (March).
 See, for example, National Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisory Council (2000) ‘The development of standards for ADR: Discussion paper’ (Canberra: Legislative Services, Commonwealth of Australia): 6.
 National Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisory Council (2000).
 Office of Fair Trading (2010), ‘Mapping UK consumer redress: A summary guide to dispute resolution systems’, OFT1267 (May).
 Gill, C, Williams, J, Brennan, C and O’Brien, N (2013) ‘The future of ombudsman schemes: drivers for change and strategic responses’, a report for the Legal Ombudsman (Edinburgh: Queen Margaret University).
 Doyle, M (2003) ‘The use of ADR in ombudsman processes: Results of a survey of members of the British and Irish Ombudsman Association’, (London: Advice Services Alliance).
 Bondy, V and Le Sueur, A (2012) ‘Designing redress: a study about grievances against public bodies’ (London: Public Law Project): 55.
 Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council (2012) ‘Putting it right – A strategic approach to resolving administrative disputes’ (London: AJTC): 36–37.
 Richardson, G and Genn, H (2007) ‘Tribunals in transition: Resolution or adjudication?’ Public Law 2007, pp.116-141: 141.
 Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council (2012) ‘Putting it right – A strategic approach to resolving administrative disputes’ (London: AJTC).
About the authors:
Varda Bondy, Margaret Doyle and Carolyn Hirst are the co-authors of ‘The use of informal resolution approaches by ombudsmen in the UK and Ireland: A mapping study’, which was funded by the Nuffield Foundation. More information about the project and the team is available at http://www.ombudsresearch.org.uk, where there is also a blog covering aspects of research on ombuds and complaint handlers.
“’Ah, what is it, now?’ the Unicorn cried eagerly. ‘You’ll never guess! I couldn’t.’ The Lion looked at Alice wearily. ‘Are you animal — or vegetable — or mineral?’ he said, yawning at every other word. ‘It’s a fabulous monster!’ the Unicorn cried out before Alice could reply.”
Our colleague on the ombudsresearch team, Carolyn Hirst, gave the keynote address at the 2016 conference of the Australian and New Zealand Ombudsman Association (ANZOA) in May. Her address, which is available here, explores the context in which ombuds in the UK are changing and the challenges these changes present. She traces the evolution of UK ombuds and gives a clear overview of the stages of development. She also considers the contributions made by recent research on ombudsry, including work she and colleagues at Queen Margaret University have carried out, work by Naomi Creutzfeldt and Chris Gill on online ‘ombuds-watchers’, and our team’s mapping work on informal resolution by ombuds. She notes the impact of recent developments such as the EU ADR Directive, which is not only ‘resulting in procedural change for ombud schemes here but is having an influence across the UK redress landscape by impacting on existing models of redress and encouraging new and often rival ADR providers to emerge’.
A self-described ‘pracademic’ (practitioner and academic), Hirst is honestly reflective about her concerns about the state of ombuds now and going forward:
“A question which has been bothering me for a while is whether the purpose of an Ombuds is to determine disputes by way of adjudication or to resolve conflicts by enabling parties to come to a consensual agreement? Or is it both? For me, this goes to the core of what it is that an Ombuds does. And I think that associated with this are the increasing tensions for Ombuds between the concepts of right, fair, just, and reasonable.”
Citing work by our colleague Nick O’Brien to retain the democractic accountability role of ombuds in the face of rushing consumerism, Hirst notes the tension between the ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ functions of ombuds: “‘Micro-justice’ or individual redress can work well, but Ombuds also need to consider the needs of ‘macro-justice’ and the interests of citizens who are not party to the individual dispute, but who may be affected by the matter complained about.”
Hirst is an impassioned supporter of the ombud institution, and in her critiques she plays the role of critical friend: “I think that the fabulous creatures which are Ombudsmen can be one model with many applications, as long as there is both clarity and confidence about who they are and what they stand for.”
“So where do we want to go? I think that one of the biggest challenges ahead for UK Ombuds is to decide what they want to be. And in doing this they need to be out, loud and proud in clarifying their place and role as a distinctive and integral part of the dispute resolution landscape.”
One of the difficulties with mapping work is that the landscape tends to change, often quite rapidly – something that’s as true of cities as of research. The ombudsresearch team’s visit to Dublin last week included a brief tour of the city’s ‘Italian quarter’, a new(ish) area with housing and cafés created by politician and developer Mick Wallace, including a new pedestrianised street, Blooms Lane, where no street existed before. (The street doesn’t appear on all maps of the city – but it does feature a unique mural by artist John Byrne, ‘Dublin’s Last Supper’, with portraits of several of the city’s notorious inhabitants.)
The terrain of ombuds complaints-handling practice has also changed since we mapped it in our study, something we learned at the Irish ombudsman staff conference on 19 February. We were invited to present our study of the use of informal resolution approaches by ombuds in the UK and Ireland, our Nuffield-funded mapping research published in autumn 2014 (the report is available here: The use of informal resolution approaches by ombudsmen in the UK and Ireland ). We were warmly welcomed by Kieran FitzGerald of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) and Peer Tyndall, Ombudsman for Ireland.
Before the conference, we were invited to meet with Nuala Ward of the Ombudsman for Children. After marveling at the enormous bean bags and cinema for visiting children, we discussed with Nuala the implications of greater use of informal resolution approaches in terms of achieving justice for children and young people in Ireland. We were also impressed with the scheme’s own initiative powers, especially given the obstacles many children and young people face in making complaints.
Afterwards, we presented our research to the gathering of staff from the many and varied ombuds schemes and commissioners in Ireland, all of whom had generously responded to our study. Attendees were not shy about challenging our findings. It was fascinating to discover, for instance, that the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), which handles complaints about the police, no longer uses face-to-face mediation between complainants and officers. It had been one of the five schemes (three of which are Irish schemes) using such an approach, albeit for a small percentage of complaints, but it found difficulty in getting consent from the parties.
One of the other schemes using face-to-face mediation is the Press Ombudsman – again, for a very small percentage of its complaints. That scheme raised interesting issues for us about terminology, because they use ‘conciliation’ to refer to their formal process, and ‘mediation’ as the informal process. The confusion about terminology is an issue that runs across the entire project and is something we’ve commented on specifically before. Why are schemes using different terminology for the same processes, and the same terminology for what appear to be very different processes? Bernie Grogan of the Press Ombudsman suggested that we might have been better off establishing what the process terminology (mediation, conciliation, adjudication) means before inviting responses to the questionnaire so that people would refer to the same terms.
Another suggestion from Peter Tyndall, Ireland’s national ombudsman, was that we could have asked respondents to describe what they do, and then develop a typology from the responses, rather than starting with definitions. This is similar to an approach taken by researchers from Queen Margaret University in a 2014 study of dispute resolution models used by ombud schemes internationally. In that, the processes were grouped into categories of evaluative, facilitative and conciliatory approaches. This helpfully avoided getting caught up in differing definitions.
We’ll take all those suggestions on board if and when we take this research further. One of the points that came across very clearly is that what’s needed is a more in-depth, up-close observation of what ombudsfolk actually do. What are the techniques and practices they use to resolve complaints early and informally? What do the parties feel about the experience? How do the outcomes compare to those decided following investigation?
A lively discussion followed our presentation. Participants discussed the possibility of a one-stop shop, or common portal, for complainants to access and be directed to the appropriate ombud scheme. Others mentioned the need for opportunities for training and development that are tailored for the staff of the schemes in Ireland, with a particular focus on investigation techniques. A representative from the Financial Services Ombudsman explained a recent change in their informal resolution approach, with more focus on resolution at an early stage. And a representative from the Ombudsman for Children noted that ‘resolution’ means different things to different people – for that scheme, resolution that is in the interests of the child is paramount. That scheme is also unusual in that it is seeing an increase in complaints, while others are seeing a decrease.
It was a great privilege to be in a room with so many knowledgeable and expert individuals. Although the terrain has shifted somewhat since our study, there is clearly an appetite to look more closely at the place of informal resolution in ombuds practice.
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.
We have seen this past week the publication of two significant markers in the move towards reform of the ombudsman landscape. Both highlight the difficulties faced by a ‘system’ of redress that has developed in an ad hoc way. Both take account of the increased consumerisation of redress, in public- and private-sector disputes. Both attempt, in their own way, to bring about greater harmonisation of the system and to improve access, consistency and accountability. They take very different approaches to such attempts, however: one, to set a relatively low baseline of standards which which redress providers must comply, and thus encourage a multitude of competing providers; the other, to merge existing redress providers into a single scheme, with enhanced powers and remit.
On 17 March, the Alternative Dispute Resolution for Consumer Disputes (Competent Authorities and Information) Regulations were laid before Parliament. These regulations are the first step towards implementation of the EU ADR Directive, which requires member states to ensure that independent ADR is available for disputes over goods and services. They set out the requirements for ADR providers and the bodies (competent authorities) that will approve them. The Department for Business explains that that the regulations will ‘overlay an existing landscape of disparate provision of alternative dispute resolution’.
‘Disparate’ is perhaps a kind way to describe the landscape. In spite of calls for greater harmonisation, the motley range of ADR provision will remain, in some cases providers competing with each other for customers (businesses) and sharing only compliance with the minimum requirements which with providers must comply.
Although they are minimum requirements, there is something positive in the fact that information requirements will apply to all approved providers. Schedule 3 sets out the requirements that competent authorities must be satisfied that an ADR provider meets before they can be approved. The requirements for transparency (16 of them) are listed under section 5 and require that an ADR provider must state on its website a range of information about how it works, including its procedural rules and the principles the ADR provider applies, and the main considerations it takes into account when seeking to resolve a dispute. That’s helpful, although the level of detail of such information is left open.
Then today we have the long-awaited Cabinet Office consultation on the reform of public services ombudsmen in England. This sets out a number of high-level questions about the overall premise, leaving the detail to a later stage. The questions relate to the underlying principles of the proposed reforms; which services to include; what sector-specific expertise to retain, and what management structure; mechanisms and routes of access for complainants; and investigative powers. The deadline for responses to the consultation is 16 June 2015.
The consultation takes forward the proposals of the Gordon Review, which in its report completed last year but only published today, recommended creating a new Public Service Ombudsman (PSO), bringing together the existing jurisdictions of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) and Housing Ombudsman (HO). Gordon proposed bringing into the remit of a single Public services ombudsman other public services that aren’t currently subject to an ombudsman’s oversight. Because of the complexity of the way public services are now contracted, paid for and provided, Gordon also recommended ‘following the public pound’ and including within the ombudsman’s jurisdiction arm’s length bodies and private-sector providers who either receive public funds or are contracted by government to deliver public services.
From the perspective of the research we carried out on informal resolution by ombudsmen, it is interesting to note that Gordon highlights as one of the improvements to come about with the integration of the public services ombudsmen is greater harmonisation of published information about complaints and outcomes. The Review report states, in para 140:
“In response to the Law Commission’s report, the public service ombudsmen in England accepted the need for greater harmonisation of practice around the way that details about complaints and ombudsmen conclusions are published and shared. The emphasis in the Law Commission’s report was rightly placed on how transparency around ombudsman decisions can be increased – and this was subsequently picked up by PASC in the context of how it might be possible to increase the public visibility of the ombudsman brand. Transparency in this area is also a key means by which the PSO can drive its own internal standards, building and demonstrating the quality of investigations and building a sense of autonomy and responsibility amongst staff within the organisation.”
Transparency and accountability are principles that all ombudsmen subscribe to. Indeed, the vast majority of schemes that we surveyed in our research on informal resolution publish annual reports containing a variety of aspects of their work. Invariably, these include figures about the volume of complaints received and how they are addressed and concluded. However, there are nearly as many ways of presenting those (and other) facts as there are schemes, with the result that meaningful comparisons are almost impossible.
We also found in our survey that transparency was a likely casualty of increased informality. Although formal decisions (or determinations or rulings) are often made public, complaints resolved informally are not. The majority of schemes we surveyed publish some information on informally resolved complaints – most commonly in the form of anonymised selected case summaries. Some, however, publish only statistics, and some publish nothing at all, including one scheme using informal resolution in 90% of its complaints.
If only decisions are published, and these become the minority method of closing complaints, there is less opportunity for ombudsmen to give feedback and to set standards for good complaints handling for the bodies in their jurisdiction. It also makes it difficult for complainants, and those complained about, to assess a proposed resolution against decided outcomes.
We will have to wait to see whether these two roads to reform are in fact heading in opposite directions.
by Carolyn Hirst
Last week the Legal Ombudsman for England and Wales published a report of research commissioned from Queen Margaret University (QMU). The QMU research team (Chris Gill, Carol Brennan, Jane Williams and Carolyn Hirst) had been asked to investigate what the Legal Ombudsman could learn from other ADR providers in relation to developing its own model of dispute resolution.
The research involved a case study design and fieldwork was conducted with ten organisations: four in the UK (HMCTS Small Claims Mediation Service, Furniture Ombudsman, UK European Consumer Centre and PhonePayplus), one in Ireland (Financial Services Ombudsman), two in New Zealand (Banking Ombudsman and the Law Society’s Lawyers Complaint Service’s Early Resolution Service), one in Australia (Financial Ombudsman Service), one in Canada (Ontario Ombudsman) and one in the USA (ebay/PayPal).
What the research highlighted was the wide range of dispute resolution practices in use. It also illustrated some of the key design choices that ADR providers needed to make in relation to a dispute resolution scheme. These design choices fell within four areas: the use of online dispute resolution; the early stages of dispute resolution processes; mediation approaches; and the later stages of dispute resolution and building influence.
The report concludes by offering a model for ADR design, which sets out some key issues to be considered. It suggests these could be used as a ‘design kit’ for the creation or review of ADR processes. This design model has ten spectra, such as the funding mechanism of the scheme, the use of technology and the preferred type of settlement, along which an ADR scheme could decide to position itself. The report concludes that the particular context into which an ADR scheme is to fit will be crucially important in informing such choices.
The author is a co-researcher on the study of The use of informal resolution approaches by ombudsmen in the UK and Ireland .
We are grateful to the Nuffield Foundation for providing us with some supplementary funding in order to follow up on some of the issues that arose when we launched our report on The use of informal resolution approaches by ombudsmen in the UK and Ireland last month. One of the pieces of work we want to do is to look at approaches used by schemes operating in the same sectors but in different jurisdictions to see what similarities and differences there are in the way they handle the same types of complaints.
For example, three organisations in our mapping study deal with complaints about financial services: the Financial Ombudsman Service (UK) (FOS), the Financial Services Ombudsman Scheme (Isle of Man) (FSOS) and the Financial Services Ombudsman’s Bureau (Ireland) (FSOB). They are vastly different in size: the FOS handles half a million complaints each year, while the Isle of Man scheme handles fewer than 300, with FSOB at nearly 8,000. All three schemes use informal resolution, but the extent to which they do ranges from 94% of complaints (FOS) to 22% (FSOS) down to <1% (FSOB). Both FSOS and FSOB use a process they call ‘mediation’, but these appear to be quite different.
Only one, the FSOB in Ireland, uses what we might call ‘true’ mediation: a process where an independent third party helps the parties in dispute to try to reach an agreement and in which the parties, not the mediator, decide the outcome.
Mediation is offered to both parties in all cases accepted by the FSOB. The scheme describes its mediation as “a process where the parties to the complaint try to reach a solution through agreement with the assistance and support of a mediator rather than through an immediate investigation of the complaint and a decision from this Office on the complaint.” The mediator is one of three members of the FSOB staff who are trained and accredited in mediation. Mediations take place in person, with both parties attending, at the FSOB offices in Dublin. Parties are advised to set aside a full day to attend mediation in person, although in practice mediations are concluded within a few hours.
Mediation is voluntary for both parties, and the very small percentage of FSOB complaints going to mediation, even though it is the default offer of the scheme, suggests that buy-in by the parties is low.
We’d like to explore what these and other sector-specific schemes share, and how they differ.
Our report on the mapping study of The use of informal resolution approaches by ombudsmen in the UK and Ireland is now published.
We hope it will provoke feedback and encourage discussion on this area of ombuds practice, so do get in touch.
Many thanks to the Nuffield Foundation for its support of the research and to De Montfort University for its administration. And many thanks to all the ombuds, case handlers, policy officers and others who contributed to the study.
‘Transparency’ is a bit of a buzz word in the ombudsman world. Specifically, it features in Article 7 of the EU ADR Directive (to be implemented in the UK from summer 2015) and in the “Guide to principles of good complaint handling” of the Ombudsman Association. More generally, it is one of the characteristics cited frequently in the promotion of the ombudsman ‘brand’. But do ombudsmen walk the walk or just talk the talk when it comes to transparency?
In our research on the way ombudsmen use informal resolution, we are coming up against an odd sort of transparency. The organisations we’ve surveyed have been very generous in responding to us – that in itself is a form of transparency. Most, if not all, publish information on their work. The actual meaning of that information, however, is often quite opaque.
We noted in our last progress report that ombudsmen and other complaint handlers don’t use the same terminology to describe the complaints they receive and how they process them. We’re also finding that they don’t report on outcomes in the same way – something that the authors of The Ombudsman Enterprise identified when they stated that official statistics published by ombudsmen “have to be examined with care”. They note that changing methodologies and definitions “can make comparisons from one year to the next and between schemes problematic”. ‘Problematic’ is putting it rather mildly. Trying to make sense of reported statistics requires examining in detail the context behind the figures we’ve been given, something that isn’t within the scope of our current project but which requires further research.
‘Harmonisation’ is another buzz word. A recent essay on “Harmonising the Ombudsman Landscape” argues that redress providers under the EU ADR Directive should be modeled on ombudsmen as a way to promote the brand in the eyes of consumers, in part because of the level of transparency:
“The competent authority, alongside the Ombudsman Association, should work with ADR bodies to align the practice and processes that they use. For best possible effect, this should be done with the core model of an ombudsman scheme in mind: for the transparency of process it affords; for the simplification of the landscape; for the benefit of justice for the consumer; for the uniformity of decision; and for the benefits the gathered data can provide to regulation, government, and the consumer.” [p.4]
There are many assumptions here – that ombudsman processes are transparent, that they deliver justice, that decisions are or could be made uniform. These assumptions need further interrogation, something highlighted at a conference on ADR and ombudsman held in Oxford in April this year. The conference organisers concluded in a policy brief that ombudsmen will need to work toward greater harmonisation of processes, terminology, and standards in order to become an essential part of the justice system.
The EU ADR Directive and transparency
The issue of transparency takes on some urgency in light of the impending implementation of the EU ADR Directive. In Article 7(2), the Directive states that all ADR providers shall make their activity reports publicly available, and these should include, among other statistics:
(a) the number of disputes received
(c) the rate of disputes the ADR entity has refused to deal with and the percentage share of the types of grounds for such refusal …
(d) …the percentage shares of solutions proposed or imposed in favour of the consumer and in favour of the trader, and of disputes resolved by an amicable solution
(e) the percentage share of ADR procedures which were discontinued and, if known, the reasons for their discontinuation
(f) the average time taken to resolve disputes
(g) the rate of compliance, if known, with the outcomes of the ADR procedures…
Let’s take a) above as an example. The number of complaints received is reported in a number of different ways currently. Some schemes report all contacts or enquiries, and then break this down into a further category of accepted or eligible complaints. Not every enquiry is a complaint.
Figure c) above refers to those complaints that are out of jurisdiction, late, premature, or otherwise not within scope. Subtracting the figure in c) from that in a) should give you the figure of accepted or eligible complaints.
But it isn’t that simple, because in this space between ‘received’ and ‘resolved’ we have more than only those complaints the scheme has refused to deal with. We also have ones (according to our survey responses) where advice is given or where a complaint might be in scope but can be remedied with a ‘quick fix’. We have some that may or may not be in scope but might be amenable to resolution with the ombudsman’s intervention. And we have those that are accepted as eligible but not dealt with by one of the three categories of process set out in the directive: a solution, proposed, imposed, or agreed between the parties. Where, for example, a case handler identifies that a suitable remedy has been offered and declines to progress the complaint, is this a proposed solution or a rejection? Confusingly, we have found that this is sometimes categorised as a ‘resolution’.
When we move on the requirements to provide a rate or percentage, we need to know which figure is being used as the starting point. For instance, is the percentage of complaints ‘resolved by amicable solution’ referring to the percentage of all complaints received (a) or is it the percentage of all accepted or eligible complaints (c)? We are finding a range of approaches to this question, making it difficult to make comparisons or draw meaningful conclusions.
Why does it matter?
In a recent essay on evolving standards in ombudsmanry, Richard Kirkham and Philip Wells examine issues of due process and fairness in ombudsmen decision-making, which are linked to openness and transparency:
“The uncertainty surrounding decision-making in the sector is made more marked by the trend over time towards resolving complaints at the pre-report stage, often by way of a letter rather than a formally completed report (Buck et al., 2011 , Ch. 4). The outcomes of such early redress have often not been published. … But the strength of the connections between the benefits to be gained from transparency and the perceived weaknesses in the complaint-handling operation do provide strong grounds for believing that more openness about the decision-making process of complaint-handlers could significantly improve confidence in complaint-handling schemes.” [p.196].
In a 2010 consultation paper on public services ombudsmen, the Law Commission originally proposed that the ombudsmen should harmonise their reporting terminology and all publish reasons for decisions not to investigate specific complaints. This was considered to be overly onerous and was opposed by the public services ombudsmen, and the Law Commission altered its recommendation. It still argued for greater transparency to allow complainants to understand the handling of their complaints, but it stepped back from recommending that the terminology of the reports issued by each ombudsmen should be harmonised.
Does transparency require standardisation? Does harmonisation mean uniformity? And how do harmonisation and transparency fit with flexibility? The call for greater consistency among ombudsmen in the processes they use (for example, in the Harmonisation essay cited above) could be read as a call for a single informal resolution process to be adopted among ombudsmen. This would be an interesting point for us to reflect on as we take this research forward and discuss it with practitioners and policy makers in the ombudsman world.