Hazardous Waste:

EPA's National and Regional Ombudsmen Do Not Have Sufficient Independence

GAO-01-813: Published: Jul 27, 2001. Publicly Released: Sep 14, 2001.

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Through the impartial and independent investigation of citizens' complaints, federal ombudsmen provide the public with an informal and accessible avenue of redress. Ombudsmen help federal agencies be more responsive to persons who believe that their concerns have not been dealt with fully or fairly through normal problem-solving channels. A national hazardous waste ombudsman was established at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1984. In recent years, that ombudsman has increasingly investigated citizen complaints referred by Members of Congress. As the number and significance of the ombudsman's investigations have increased, so have questions about the adequacy of available resources and whether other impediments exist to fulfilling the ombudsman's responsibilities. This report (1) compares the national ombudsman's operations with professional standards for independence and other factors and (2) determines the relative roles and responsibilities of EPA's national and regional ombudsmen. GAO found that key aspects of EPA's national hazardous waste ombudsman differ from professional standards for ombudsmen who deal with inquiries from the public. For example, an effective ombudsman must have independence from any person who may be the subject of a complaint or inquiry. However, EPA's national ombudsman is in the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER), the organizational unit whose decisions the ombudsman is responsible for investigating, and his budget and staff resources are controlled by unit managers within OSWER. GAO also found that, compared with EPA's national hazardous waste ombudsman, the regional ombudsmen are less independent and play a reduced role, primarily responding to informational inquiries on a part-time basis. Most of the ombudsmen in EPA's 10 regional offices hold positions within the regional organization that appear to compromise their independence. The regional ombudsmen split their time between performing duties related to the ombudsman function and duties related to the implementation of the hazardous waste programs that they are responsible for investigating. Communication between the national and regional ombudsmen is limited, despite operating guidelines that call for close communication. The national ombudsman periodically refers informational inquiries to the regional ombudsmen but rarely requests their assistance in investigations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendations, the OIG agreed to assess the demand for ombudsman services nationwide. The OIG issued a report in March 2003, which assessed the roles and responsibilities of the regional ombudsmen. The report concluded that the continued alignment of the regional ombudsmen with the Superfund program indicates a lack of independence and impartiality and, as a result, recommended eliminating the position of regional ombudsman. The report stated that changing the title of the regional ombudsmen would allow them to continue to provide a valuable service by informally resolving issues at the local level, but would alleviate the perception that these positions fulfill a true ombudsman function and meet American Bar Association standards for impartiality and independence. The Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, which was responsible for overseeing the activities of the regional ombudsmen, concurred with the OIG recommendations and committed to implementing them.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct EPA officials, including the national ombudsman, to ensure--in those locations where regional ombudsmen are warranted--that their operations are consistent with the relevant professional standards for independence.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendation, the OIG agreed to assess the demand for ombudsman services nationwide. The OIG issued a report in March 2003, which assessed the roles and responsibilities of the regional ombudsmen. The report concluded that the continued alignment of the regional ombudsmen with the Superfund program indicates a lack of independence and impartiality and, as a result, recommended eliminating the position of regional ombudsman. The report stated that changing the title of the regional ombudsmen would allow them to continue to provide a valuable service by informally resolving issues at the local level, but would alleviate the perception that these positions fulfill a true ombudsman function and meet American Bar Association standards for impartiality and independence. The Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, which was responsible for overseeing the activities of the regional ombudsmen, concurred with the OIG recommendations and committed to implementing them.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct EPA officials, including the national ombudsman, to assess the demand for ombudsman services nationwide to determine where these resources are needed.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA agrees with the recommendation, and believes that its reorganization of the ombudsman function within the OIG will facilitate the implementation of GAO's recommendations regarding the need for increased accountability and record keeping. EPA reports that the OIG has established rigorous procedures to ensure proper documentation and reporting of all investigations and inquiries taken. EPA also cited the high standards established by OIG and the seriousness with which the OIG has conducted work similar to that of the ombudsman. Notwithstanding the procedural and accountability improvements, a follow-up report on EPA's reorganization of the ombudsman function (GAO-03-92) concluded that the ombudsman would be unable to ensure that the resources for implementing the function are adequate because both the budget and workload are outside his or her control under the OIG's organizational structure. GAO recommended that EPA reconsider placement of the national ombudsman within the OIG.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the ombudsman is accountable, the Administrator, EPA, should require the ombudsman to file an annual report summarizing his activities and make it available to the public.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA agrees with the recommendation, and believes that its reorganization of the ombudsman function within the OIG will facilitate the implementation of GAO's recommendations regarding the need for increased accountability and record keeping. EPA reports that the OIG has established rigorous procedures to ensure proper documentation and reporting of all investigations and inquiries taken. EPA also cited the high standards established by OIG and the seriousness with which the OIG has conducted work similar to that of the ombudsman. Notwithstanding the procedural and accountability improvements, a follow-up report on EPA's reorganization of the ombudsman function (GAO-03-92) concluded that the ombudsman would be unable to ensure that the resources for implementing the function are adequate because both the budget and workload are outside his or her control under the OIG's organizational structure. GAO recommended that EPA reconsider placement of the national ombudsman within the OIG.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the ombudsman has adequate resources to fulfill his responsibilities within the context of EPA's overall mission, the Administrator, EPA, should require the ombudsman to maintain records on his investigations and other activities sufficient to serve as the basis for a reasonable estimate of resource needs.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA agreed with the recommendation, and indicated that its reorganization of the ombudsman function within the OIG would help address GAO's recommendations regarding the need for increased accountability and record keeping. Specifically, EPA reported that the OIG has established rigorous procedures to ensure proper documentation and reporting of all investigations and inquiries taken. EPA also cited the high standards established by OIG and the seriousness with which the OIG has conducted work similar to that of the ombudsman. Notwithstanding the procedural and accountability improvements, a follow-up report on EPA's reorganization of the ombudsman function (GAO-03-92) concluded that the ombudsman would be unable to ensure that the resources for implementing the function are adequate because both the budget and workload are outside his or her control under the OIG's organizational structure. GAO recommended that EPA reconsider placement of the national ombudsman within the OIG.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the ombudsman has adequate resources to fulfill his responsibilities within the context of EPA's overall mission, the Administrator, EPA, should require the ombudsman to develop written criteria for selecting and prioritizing cases for investigation.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  6. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In a follow-up report (GAO-03-92) on EPA's transfer of the national ombudsman to the OIG, GAO concluded that the ombudsman will still not have independent control over budget and staff resources, even within the general constraints that are faced by federal agencies. GAO recommended that EPA reconsider placement of the national ombudsman in the OIG.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of EPA's ombudsmen and secure the public trust, the Administrator, EPA, should take steps to strengthen the independence of the national hazardous waste ombudsman by providing the ombudsman with a separate budget and, subject to applicable Civil Service requirements, the authority to hire, fire, and supervise his own staff.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  7. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA agreed with the recommendation to strengthen the independence of the ombudsman and chose to relocate the national ombudsman from the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response to the Office of Inspector General (OIG). In a follow-up report (GAO-03-92), GAO concluded that the ombudsman and OIG functions are fundamentally different and should not be housed together. Among other things, GAO pointed out that EPA's reorganization established an ombudsman that does not provide the degree of structural or functional independence anticipated in relevant professional standards, and is not fully consistent with the typical definition of the ombudsman position. In addition, GAO found that placing the ombudsman in the OIG could affect the activities of the Inspector General. GAO recommended that EPA reconsider placement of the national ombudsman in the OIG.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of EPA's ombudsmen and secure the public trust, the Administrator, EPA, should take steps to strengthen the independence of the national hazardous waste ombudsman by modifying its organizational structure so that the ombudsman is located outside of the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  8. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA agrees with the recommendation, and believes that its reorganization of the ombudsman function within the OIG will facilitate the implementation of GAO's recommendations regarding the need for increased accountability and record keeping. EPA reports that the OIG has established rigorous procedures to ensure proper documentation and reporting of all investigations and inquiries taken. EPA also cited the high standards established by OIG and the seriousness with which the OIG has conducted work similar to that of the ombudsman. Notwithstanding the procedural and accountability improvements, a follow-up report on EPA's reorganization of the ombudsman function (GAO-03-92) concluded that the ombudsman would be unable to ensure that the resources for implementing the function are adequate because both the budget and workload are outside his or her control under the OIG's organizational structure. GAO recommended that EPA reconsider placement of the national ombudsman within the OIG.

    Recommendation: In the interests of fairness, EPA should require the ombudsman to establish a consistent policy for preparing written reports on his investigations, consulting with agency officials and other affected parties to obtain their comments before his findings are made public, and including agency comments when reports are published.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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