Ombudsperson Due Care: United Way 211 Services

9 December 2010

In as much as I keep promising myself that I won’t do pro bono work anymore, I’ve done, once again, a fair amount of it this year.  An email or phone call comes in, I open the intake document and before I know it my “little voice” is telling me to take the case anyway regardless of payment.  In any case though I believe “we”, as professionals, are obligated and have a duty to follow through and provide additional due care that often extends outside our ADR procedures.

The definition of “due care” has legal, moral and personal safety terms in it, check your local dictionary.  During intake we are alert to personal safety issues at all times and so even after our diligence is complete, the obligation may not be over.  In such circumstances I recommend United Way 211 Information and Referral search engine to assist you, the ombudsperson, in the role of personal coach, advocate and facilitator to assist “impacted” clients.  This is a very effective role, as a third party in an advocate role because the gate keepers for services and resources will cooperate more fully than if the distressed client is representing themselves.  The UW 211 Service has been very effective and helpful to me as a “one stop” resource for any community in the USA where community services are now needed to help stabilize the “aftermath” of failed negotiations or life threatening event.

In my most recent case where I used United Way 211 my client had no computer, but had contacted me to assist her and her 3 children regarding eviction.  My decision to help was sealed when I was able to confirm her story with the FBI field agent in charge of her case where Citibank and Chase Bank employees are charged with mortgage fraud.  She gave me his number and he returned the call in minutes confirming she’s a material witness in his case.  After she lost her home she found expensive housing near her sons local high school and took it to try and keep his life stable too.  The results over the last year is that the stress of everything crumbling, like for millions now in the world, is she ended up losing her job as a Certified Physician Assistant and went on Social Security Disability.  To make a long story short we faxed “permission” to be an advocate for her with the property management company.  Negotiations lasted 3 days, which is all I was willing to spend, as they took the tactic of participating in conference calls to negotiate freezing her rent and avoiding any increases till June of 2011 when her son graduates high school and they can move.  No answers were ever given, though we could tell they were sending the request through channels.  In the end the property management took the position that “the going market rate” for her 3 bedroom apartment was actually higher than the increase.  I couldn’t leave the conversation without pointing out that the only reason they could do that was that they were ignoring “extended family” and “multi-tenant” rules of the property where more than one bread-winner occupies the unit.  Negotiations failed, eviction notice pending in 3 days.

What followed was half a day of consoling the client who was now extremely distraught.  As soon as I verbally and firmly assured her I would not “leave her behind” she settled down and began to focus with me; we got to work.  I told her I needed some time to put some things together.  In some cases I simply refer people to United Way 211, but in this case, she had no Internet, only a phone and was so emotionally impacted I had to lead and support her for a while.  Within one week we had her a new apartment under a state subsidized program and by her son’s high school.  We had move in funds from a local charity listed in UW 211 saying they specifically provide that in emergencies.  We also secured her a refurbished used computer from a Christian Ministry in the area.  She’s also applied for food stamps and disability is now approved through 2011 given “letters” we obtained to prove her case.

In closing, the “due care” process in my experience often extends beyond handling a case and in many cases the political and corporate “wranglings” that go on to delay critical decisions for the client go on into perpetuity.  Time is most often on the side of the larger more powerful entity in such situations.  You therefore should develop contingencies, make it part of your “best practice”, in your own practice to assist clients who are often emotional and severely “impacted” by slow bureaucracy that may just be benign about assisting or employees are “bound” by policy and procedure that takes years, if ever, to process.  Additionally, if UW 211 has gaps in resources needed, simply Google a list of non-profits by zip code for the case at hand and see what pops up.

Happy Holidays too to all…


The New Ombudsperson: Career Choice And The MBTI Instrument

28 October 2010

I have the distinct pleasure this year, several times, to talk to many individuals contemplating becoming an Ombudsperson.  Some were offered a volunteer position of some sort in elder care, others recognize they have played a similar role consistently in their previous or current job; and still others are simply curious.  To help evaluate this personal decision you may want to consider taking the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator or MBTI to determine if your innate personality characteristics are suited to the profession.  This is but one step to help come to a decision; and could assist with guidance towards any type of career consideration.

I bring this into the equation because in my “other practice” in 2009 I had bid a project and then was asked to take the MBTI online and submit the results for purposes of “team makeup” they said, which I did.  I’d also taken this, as many of you also probably have, as an undergrad in college where requirements to be a “lab rat” to graduate were also required.  What I noticed is that in the approximate 30 year time span from my original MBTI and the 2009 “test”, I’d kept consistent with my “assigned category” from then to now, which can be good or bad depending on how one wants to look at it.

Below are some raw links to further investigate for yourself and even take the “exam”.  It can also be administered in person professionally, please Google for yourself to explore dozens of resources online:

To spike your interest even further here is a table of personality type categories below:

And if you’ve stayed with me this far, nope, didn’t win that bid, but rediscovered “why” I took the degree program I did 30 years ago and “why” I continue to be what I am today.  I hope this helps everyone select a potential new career for 2011 that is in alignment with your “core” disposition; or confirm your present career choice. Oh, and in case you are wondering… INFJ.

Ombudsmanship & Successful Contract Negotiations

19 July 2010

Over the last six months I’ve been working on a long-term “contingency” project, something I said I’d never do anymore, but this time I just “knew” I could provide experience and skills needed to solve a long-standing deadlock.  In addition to that, a conservative modeling of the contract projected gross earnings of $2,000,000 the first year had a significant influence too, not to mention new jobs and filling a recognized gap in corporate communities nationwide.  The client contacted me and for about an hour at the beginning of 2010, she laid out a long and winding road of cycling back and forth over decisions between her and a Fortune 500 company seeking her organizations Wellness Program services.  She “knew” she didn’t have “control” over the situation and was perplexed as to how to get out of the whirlpool of wasting time, energy and resources and find a mutual solution for both sides.  Not to keep you, the reader, bored with all the background details, I’ll just say that after 12 full months all terms have been re-negotiated and the contract signed as of this month.  Success… here is what made the difference and you can consider it too.

First, I took an “asymmetrical” approach and to save even more time I simply offered to work day by day with her on whatever issue popped up and we would look at it and find the solution.  Key to this was COMMUNICATION and having complete open channels and reciprocity between us at all times.  I chose this approach after doing a case history and realizing the company was good at serving the end customer directly, very knowledgeable and skilled, but not at all familiar with partnering or sub-contracting to a larger entity.  All of the principles of The 6 C’s of Sociocratic Peace Building were also applied between “our team” and their entity.

Second, we re-established communications with the Fortune client on the basis or “excuse”, that it’s a new year and “whatever happened to our contract discussion from last summer” and within 24 hours an “invitation” came back indicating they’d like to pick them up and begin again IF some substantial changes could be made.

Third, the “terms” came over and an analysis began. In “corporate speak” there is a lot of talking, but no communicating and the “terms” I read indicated that I had a client that didn’t “speak the language” and her Fortune client knew what they wanted, but didn’t know the “how” to get it and this is the “unspoken” path to success… if one can “sense” it and see it.

Fourth, we replied with a proposal and began to negotiate the terms.  The “key word” that really opened things up and caused an immediate “surge” in activity was to propose a “pilot program” lasting 90 days.  This offers “both sides” the opportunity to discover if it’s going to work or not and then a decision is made.  We are now, the moment of this writing, PAST the pilot program point and a full open end contract was awarded.

Fifth, if you see “gaps” in terms between the two entities one side has to come forward and break the dysfunctional cycling of “talk” and demonstrate “substantive” solutions.  This has a cost attached, always, and for the first time, yet another barrier was over come because we put actual costs in a proposal.  In the closing rounds the Fortune client tried to get into a position so as not to have to pay for custom operational and administrative infrastructure required to manage the partnership and this took the longest time of back and forth discussion and providing substantiation of costs.  There’s a danger in this at this stage, but I won’t go into that to keep short here, but let’s just say there are “levels” of disclosure towards the objectives and goals as long as you keep pointing them out and repeating them as needed.

Sixth, the “compass” or guiding principle I gave my client in the beginning was to always answer this question in your own head at any given moment and stage of negotiations. “When are you in adversarial, neutral or consensus mode with your customer/client/partner?”  The practical answer to this question is that at any given time one never really knows, but you must “sense” where you are and RESPOND appropriately to keep a once stalled process moving forward.  You could be adversarial about points in the contract and communicating from a neutral stance and be in consensus on intentions and you have to constantly contemplate all of these dynamics.

In closing, most of “our” work is ad hoc to some situation, contract, relationship “gone bad”, but as I’ve written before and in this case specifically, you can provide “intervention” during the process of coming to terms between entities without lawyers and other “polarizing” traditions.  The minute you say, “I’ll have my lawyer look at this contract before I sign it”, you just performed a “mea culpa” that you may NEVER get an opportunity, as a party to an agreement, to bring to favorable outcome.  In this case my client never did this, but rather stayed neutral and kept a diplomatic position enabling and empower everyone to later move forward once communicating details of every single point was covered and substantive demonstrations of the capacity to “perform” were provided. This provides “confidence” on both sides to “get married” and begin a mutually beneficial, job producing, health preserving program.  For me personally, my “formula” for combining ombudsman ADR during a business activity as an ombudmanship skill continues to be viable and therefore substantiate my work in “the blue ocean” of opportunity.  Good luck in your endeavors too…

Ombudsman ADR: The “Due Care” Process

1 July 2009

Recently a young couple from Ontario Canada emailed me asking for my “intervention” on their behalf with the Ontario Provincial Ombudsman’s Office.  Their expectation was clearly that I would “leap into action” and make everything “right” based on their perceptions of my blog and the drastic economic hardship situation they’re in, still in this moment; and that I could “fix” it.  Their communication and situation, as it is with millions of people nowadays, was filled with panic and chaos in the messages and material they emailed to me.  I have to admit, I initially took the “case” at face value with the idea that I could “facilitate” and expedite their issue that was pressing in on them in their dire quest towards getting “communication” going with officials in government.  This case is about not taking short cuts, making assumptions, but remaining diligent and objective at all times; and keeping with “due care”… here’s why.

In business we’ve all heard of “due diligence”, the process in business and finance of determining the validity of information, peoples identity, facts, confirmation, the truth and many other factors in what is usually a very long checklist of items needed for a broad variety of organizations to “make a decision” and determine risk prior to any formations, transactions or partnerships.  “Due Care” is less diligent, but highly relevant for our profession in terms of determining the validity of a complaint, fact checking and then getting the information from “others” or various sources so as to form a basis, substantiate or confirm information provided by everyone party to the complaint or issue.

For this couple the concise issue was very complex, more complex than I realized after saying “yes” email it all.  By the way, the good thing about Gmail is whole “conversations” come over “in tact and in sequence”; and in this case this saved me tons of time as I could read pages of email in order of response (or see gaps) by each Canadian government agency.  In brief, the case is about an “engaged to be married” couple (complainants) who have put off the ceremony due to the economy and her loss of job, his loss of “normal” overtime hours, their apartment complex going “condo association” and being forced to move (about now from what I remember) their financial obligations on student loans, credit card debt, funds needed to put down deposits to move and the “key” issues of child support to his 3 children with his ex-common law wife who is now remarried.  I can’t help but put here, “are all of you who are considering an ombudsman career ‘sure’ you want to do this?”  Anyway, I took the case knowing I’m “on the outside working in” as the dynamic if I’m to take any “direct contact” approach, but am hoping to “coach” them to resolve it themselves.

After days of review on my “down time” I started my “due care” process.  I didn’t take a complaint form as it was not applicable.  Soon what became the core finding was that the government office that makes adjustments in decrease or increase in child support levels year to year had then forward their “findings” to the court.  The “court orders” their child support rate obligations to the 3 children changed, in this case it was  “significantly up” and final “hearings” to confirm this were pending.  To the couples credit they “did the math”, I was proud of them, as they sent the percentage calculations over to me on their “one person” salary income household, subtracted obligations and the new percentage of income the increase in child support represented as a “chunk” shall we say, of their total household income.  Calculations were also correct.  In the end, long story short again, calculations by the government office and given to the court were formulated on 2008 wages, which were “loaded” with overtime hours.  Now, for 2009, everything has collapsed, their normal two wage earner household now unable to “gross minimum wage” anymore and the “threat” of being “forced” by government to comply looms over them with possible seizures of bank accounts and drivers license suspensions (needed to go to work).  What I was able to do was find where a few “missteps” on their part in the government policy and procedure had been “anxiously circumvented” rather than processed in “order of sequence” and so we got them back on track by now filing an “objection form” with the government agency and I helped them “refine and consolidate” their message.  I am confident “O’ Canada”, you will listen to your citizens needs here and be “fair”.  I’ve “kept the door open” for this couple and have not heard back in about 5 weeks now, but it should proceed okay now as they are “back in sequence” with government procedures on their issue.

Additionally, all OO’s in this type of scenario can provide advice and “listen” so as to “calm panic”.  You can provide “wisdom” about available community resources, sharing a place to live with others in similar situations temporarily, identify resources in their community for them as they are “focused” on the crises and not focused in making choices to “sustain” themselves; and much more.  Be careful about “credit counseling” as this is a separate profession and industry that is regulated; and so don’t make a “mistake” and over step your due process while exercising your “due care” procedures.

In the end this case never required that I “engage” the Canadian Ombudsman’s Provincial Office in Ontario.  The clients had contact them and received “no response”, but I suspect it’s because the couple had not exhausted proper procedure with the responsible government agencies they were “complaining” about.  Due Care requires “we” insure such processes are exhausted and completed before an ombudsperson engages.  If “due care” and taking time to review “every word” of the case had not been completed “diligently”, I could have “over stepped” or even worse; advised them into taking action maybe creating a  “polarizing” incident.  You too then?  Due Care at all times, be sure, be professional, be objective and consider policy and procedure of those entities clients have “issues” about in complex scenarios.