Human Capital:

The Role of the Ombudsmen in Dispute Resolution

GAO-01-466: Published: Apr 13, 2001. Publicly Released: May 15, 2001.


George H. Stalcup
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Federal agencies have created ombudsmen offices to expedite the resolution of employees' complaints about workplace issues. An ombudsman provides an informal alternative to more formal administrative processes in the workplace, using various techniques and often working "outside the box" to deal with conflicts and other organizational disputes. GAO found that the number of ombudsman offices handling workplace issues in federal agencies is small but is expected to grow. These offices deal with a wide range of workplace issues, from helping employees get answers to questions about agency policies and cutting through "red tape" to more serious situations, such as allegations about employment discrimination. In studying the ombudsmen offices at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), and the U.S. Secret Service, GAO found some common approaches as well as some differences in their operations. Common to all three offices was their broad responsibility and authority to deal with almost any workplace issue, their ability to bring systemic issues to management's attention, and the way in which they worked with other agency offices in providing assistance to employees. But how they were structured to carry out this authority varied. In addition, no federal standards directly apply to the operation of ombudsmen offices, although all three offices adhere to standards of practice established by professional organizations. The recommended standards of professional organizations state that ombudsmen should be accountable for their activities. However, federal agencies do little to evaluate their ombuds programs. Officials at all three agencies generally viewed the ombudsmen program as beneficial. Despite the lack of formal federal guidance on the standards of practices for the federal ombuds community, several forums exist in which ombudsmen can share information informally about best practices and lessons learned.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendation for Executive Action

    Recommendation: As the Interagency ADR Working Group moves forward with its study of federal ombudsmen, the Attorney General, as chairman of the Working Group, should see that any resulting guidance on professional standards of practice that the Working Group develops be clearly defined and transparent and, in addition to including the core principles of independence, neutrality, and confidentiality, include standards for accountability, and contains information about how this new guidance can be consistently applied within the federal ombuds community.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Interagency Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Working Group's study of federal sector ombudsmen is still in progress. The Working Group is chaired by the Attorney General. This study is expected to result in recommendations for guidance on standards. December 2003: Received letter from DOJ saying that the Working Group recommended that Federal ombudsmen use standards to be promulgated by the American Bar Association (ABA). ABA standards for ombudsmen promulgated in February 2004. Because these standards were not uniformly applicable to federal agencies, the Working Group tasked the Coalition of Federal Ombudsmen (CFO) to build upon the ABA standards to create a document appropriate for the federal government. On August 1, 2005, the CFO developed the "Federal Supplement to [ABA] Standards for the Establishment and Operations of Ombuds Offices" that augments the ABA standards with guidance specific for federal ombudsmen. This satisfies GAO's recommendation.

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