Toward the end of last month the International Ombudsman Association (IOA) offered comment on proposed amendments to Title IX regulations to the Department of Education. I’m both a member and a Board member of IOA and value that organizational ombuds have an association home for education, networking and ombuds promotion. And, as I read the comment it offered an opportunity to reflect on how the IOA, like its members, adheres to the idea of ombuds as neutral and impartial.
Now, before we get to the comment, let’s explore this idea of the ombuds being neutral and impartial. It stems from the idea that not taking a “side” allows the ombuds to hold the middle and support people with different perspectives on any given topic or issue. The IOA Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics on this point state:
Standards of Practice – – – NEUTRALITY AND IMPARTIALITY
2.1 The Ombudsman is neutral, impartial, and unaligned.
2.2 The Ombudsman strives for impartiality, fairness and objectivity in the treatment of people and the consideration of issues. The Ombudsman advocates for fair and equitably administered processes and does not advocate on behalf of any individual within the organization.
2.3 The Ombudsman is a designated neutral reporting to the highest possible level of the organization and operating independent of ordinary line and staff structures. The Ombudsman should not report to nor be structurally affiliated with any compliance function of the organization.
2.4 The Ombudsman serves in no additional role within the organization which would compromise the Ombudsman’ neutrality. The Ombudsman should not be aligned with any formal or informal associations within the organization in a way that might create actual or perceived conflicts of interest for the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman should have no personal interest or stake in, and incur no gain or loss from, the outcome of an issue.
2.5 The Ombudsman has a responsibility to consider the legitimate concerns and interests of all individuals affected by the matter under consideration.
2.6 The Ombudsman helps develop a range of responsible options to resolve problems and facilitate discussion to identify the best options.
Code of Ethics – – – NEUTRALITY AND IMPARTIALITY
The Ombudsman, as a designated neutral, remains unaligned and impartial. The Ombudsman does not engage in any situation which could create a conflict of interest.
Based on these concepts of neutrality and impartiality, the ombuds provides support to individuals and groups without representing or advocating for the particular person or idea. Providing help by not taking a side allows the ombuds to have difficult conversations exploring multiple perspectives as most people only consider an issue from their own point of view when in conflict. Staying neutral and impartial also allows the ombuds to help all the people involved in a situation – sometimes in a mediator or facilitator role. In the Title IX context, the ombuds office as a place that can help all persons can have a significant impact.
Returning to the IOA comment, it thus makes sense that it did not focus on the substance of proposed amendments; instead, it focused on the ombuds role and process. On how an organizational ombuds can serve an important function and how it fits within the organization it serves – in this case with a focus on academic institutions. The IOA noted that “more than 70% of AAU member universities” (Association of American Universities) have an organizational ombuds, how the ombuds role is unique as a zero barrier office at an institution and, given the research that demonstrates significant underreporting of Title IX concerns, specifically identifying the ombuds as a confidential campus resource, would further support the goals of Title IX.
When people come to the ombuds office with concerns about fair treatment it can be the first time the person has sought assistance to address a situation. And, talking with the ombuds, where the person will learn about the many services provided by the organization, including Title IX services, provides both information and an opportunity for the person to engage with the organization. The process of the ombuds listening to people and identifying resources helps empower people to make additional choices.
At last year’s IOA conference in Richmond (this year the conference is in New Orleans), there was a booth set up to ask ombuds to identify their super power and, upon reflection, I think being neutral and impartial is one of the many ombuds super powers! Now, to get working on a cape and flying!
When you are not sure where to go – Go Ombuds ! ! !