Ombudsman… S t r e t c h i n g The Meaning

It’s been a very busy week.  Ironically I did observe some interesting “beliefs” from multiple individual sources.  For me, I don’t know about you, this means the “Universe” is trying to tell me something.  I paid attention to what everyone wrote and said during the weeks communications;  and then I began to think like “an Ombudsman’s Ombudsman” or what  a “true Ombudsman” would neutrally observe looking at the situation.  A lot came from this and I pulled my resources and research, to “be sure”; and what I’m about to set forth here could “polarize peers” in the profession, no doubt.

We’ve all heard it, “give a hammer to a carpenter and they’ll find something to hammer”.  The American Bar Association (ABA) has been contributing “meaning and definition” to the “ombudsman” word meaning since about 1961 and more recently the association put forth a “resolution” on “dispute resolution” and to embrace the term “ombudsman” as a part of the legal profession.  Like the carpenter, they define the ombudsman practice using “lawyer speak”, which is, in my opinion, NOT an ombudsman.  They classify 3 basic types of ombudsmen complete with definitions: classical ombudsman, organizational ombudsman and advocate ombudsman.  They then move towards “positioning” lawyers to have jurisdiction and final authority over ombudsmen and ombudsman offices with “judicial and administrative” consequences if the ombudsman acts out of “omission or commission” or knowledge of their “clients” acts in relation to the  law.  It’s at this point I began to think about “the truth” versus “truthiness” and the subtle yet “biting” words used in their “resolution”.  It is at this point, of most importance, how many people needing a “voice”, perhaps emotionally upset, seeking trusted assistance  only to discover their ombudsman is an ABA member (bound to professional oath) and silently moves to being in an “administrative discharge” role over their violations.  Now flip the coin again (or other edge of the sword, your choice).  What if the same mediator violates their oath, recognizes their “true” ombudsman role and fails to provide “notice” to their “reporting authority”?  Wow.  It is at this point that literally years of debate could begin, no doubt might,  especially in “blurring of the lines” between legal mediation versus ombudsman mediation; and a true ombudsman’s role outside of judicial and formal administrative channels.  Remember how to use that hammer please.  And what about the original concept of ombudsmanship and the capacity to solve disputes WITHOUT legal formality?  Don’t hit your thumb…

If you can’t tell by now I do not possess a Juris Doctorate.  My background is in corporate, business and organizational development with degrees in business and the social/behavioral sciences.  By my “nature” I’ve even “mediated” relationships since Junior High, doing the right thing and losing that chance with “her” because she came to me, trusted me, “opened up” in confidence with me; and was interested in my best friend, not me.   Many times I’ve played an “ombudsman’s role” during engagements because as a consultant one is never really fully 100% a part of “either side of the table” in a business project and we want to prevent “barriers” from forming by helping seek “middle ground” in negotiations and for the common economic good as an outcome.  Admittedly, it’s just been the last 3 months that I’ve formally declared my ombudsman services as a part of my consulting practice; yet fully aware I now cannot “straddle the fence” and once committed to a role, I must stay that course.

I tend to hold to the founding matriarch’s position of the ombudsman profession, Mary Rowe PhD, that individuals that elect to “trust” and engage an ombudsman will have the same confidentiality as a “patient and physician” relationship.  Her descriptions and discussion over the decades are more like an “organizational psychologist” terminology not an arbitrator saying they are a mediator (look up the meaning for clarity).  We do not take steps to “document” to possibly build a case or conduct investigations subtly advocated by the ABA.  We take a more “informal” approach and method relying on ethics, morals, integrity, honesty, trust and “doing the right thing” with relation to policies, procedures, charters, agreements, memorandums and compliance.  Our methods are to “neutralize” not plan for an eventual “plaintiff and defendant” adjudication.  There is no “due process” only “due care” for an ombudsman.  We don’t speak to “legal charters”, but to “terms of reference” as the guidelines an ombuds office complies with.  We do not speak of “jurisdiction and authority”, but of “informal procedures” to handle an “inquiry” before “legal methods” are needed due to escalations in disputes, conflicts and possibly violence.  And, there is much more, many more “differentiators” here.

One of the “triggering” moments this last week was a discussion with the head of a HR department in a huge energy conglomerate.  They replied back with full “letter head”, the string of acronyms behind their name certifying their professional status  and detailed contact information (phone extension), so I took this as an “invitation” (not a dare) and replied to their reply to my request.  The bottom line from discussion was that they did not need an ombudsman office or ombudsman because internal corporate counsel had an ombudsman program in place for their employees and stakeholders.  This office was located on the same floor as the C-level executives, that’s right, on premises and, I don’t know this as fact, but you probably have to walk through the same door as you would to “serve papers” if in a “polarized” legal relationship with the company.  Contrast this with a university ombudsman office usually located off campus and away from “administrative” offices.   This instantly reminded me of the Inspector Generals Office when I served  in the Air Force, located immediately adjacent to the Base and Wing Commander’s offices, how could anyone “get in” without being noticed?  Are these examples of what an “ombudsman is” today and the structure of the profession; embedded and overlapping functions, no independence yet applying “the word”?

There is a “calling” now (petition) for President Obama to open an Ombudsmans Cabinet and Offices.  This is a good idea.  The Gordian Knot will be the challenge to “our” profession as it is linked to the legal profession and the continuing “bias” of a “nation built on laws” that are used to “keep order” for constituents and are “ignored” by lobbyists, the wealthy and the powerful.  These new laws that are being written are to do “battle” between polarized groups at the moment (federal government versus global free market capitalists), but are ignored by the individuals that are the “bridges” between “cabinet appointments” from the financial power elite free market business sectors and the “regulatory offices” of the Federal Government.  These are the same professionals that open the way for becoming a “leader of the people and their will” and that wrote the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 legislation only to ignore it and let the financial services industry executives consolidate, hold funds to enhance balance sheets and shareholder value.  The same companies that pay 18 billion in bonuses for 2008, snubbing the law by “looping” around the legislated restrictions; and to “retain the talent we need to get us out of this mess” yet they are the same one’s that created the financial products and instruments that made the mess.  The ombudsman profession is needed now, has a noble opportunity as “A VOICE OF REASON”, to remind our representatives they wrote laws that apply to all, not just some of the people; and that more “judicial action” will cost time, waste even more taxpayer money created from thin air by the FED and not resolve the economic disaster we are in.  I see ombudsmen in a position to bring back the virtues our forefather’s gave us in the Bill of Rights and Constitution, so wisely, but our leaders forget day to day.

Now… what will it be?  Let’s all be true to the “word” and “meaning”, altruistic and serve with integrity, “do the right thing” and as we are called upon to be, when asked.  Leave out the legal definitions and “cornering” of  “our” profession by professional legal associations that govern legal practices and move towards a true and independent “virtuous” ombudsman professional practice.

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