A few of us from OGIS recently attended a presentation by the Interagency Alternative Dispute Resolution Working Group, an organization for Federal employees who work in the area of alternative dispute resolution. The title of the presentation was “How an Ombuds Office Serving Employees, Customers, and Citizens Can Bring Greater Success to Your Agency.”
The presentation featured Rita Franklin, Director of the Department of Energy’s Office of the Ombudsman; Charles L. Howard, an attorney and author of the book The Organizational Ombudsman: Origins, Roles and Operations — A Legal Guide; and Wendy Kamenshine, Ombudsman at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The speakers shared lots of good information, but a few of their statements particularly resonated with us as the FOIA Ombudsman.
- An ombuds office plays an essential role, even though many people don’t understand what it does. The statistics for success of those who step forward as whistleblowers are grim, but ombuds offices can help address some of the same issues in an environment of independence, neutrality, confidentiality and informality.
- Mediation and ombuds work are complementary services. Ombuds work builds ongoing relationships while mediation is an engagement that takes place during a defined period of time, according to one presenter.
- Ombuds work requires creativity. Ombudsmen have at their disposal a broad toolkit that includes mediation, facilitation, training, outreach, shuttle diplomacy and much more.
- One great challenge that new ombuds offices may face is overlap with other offices within the organization and feelings of jealousy or territoriality that may arise. One example that was cited is human resources departments feeling territorial about HR issues that might be brought to the ombuds office. The panelists encouraged new ombuds offices to work through these issues by focusing on communicating the way ombuds offices can help and their role within the organization.
It was great to hear how other Federal ombuds offices are dealing with the same challenges and opportunities that we at OGIS have faced. The discussion certainly planted lots of seeds for us — we can’t wait to see what grows out of them!