Environmental Protection:

Issues for Consideration in the Reorganization of EPA's Ombudsman Function

GAO-02-859T: Published: Jun 25, 2002. Publicly Released: Jun 25, 2002.

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The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) hazardous waste ombudsman was established as a result of the 1984 amendments to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Recognizing that the ombudsman provides a valuable service to the public, EPA retained the ombudsman function as a matter of policy after its legislative authorization expired in 1988. Over time, EPA expanded the national ombudsman's jurisdiction to include Superfund and other hazardous waste programs, and, by March 1996, EPA had designated ombudsmen in each of its ten regional offices. In November 2001, the agency announced that the national ombudsman would be relocated from the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and would address concerns across the spectrum of EPA programs, not just hazardous waste programs. Although there are no federal requirements or standards specific to the operation of ombudsman offices, several professional organizations have published standards of practice relevant to ombudsmen who deal with public inquiries. If EPA intends to have an ombudsman function consistent with the way the position is typically defined in the ombudsman community, placing the national ombudsman within the OIG does not achieve that objective. The role of the ombudsman typically includes program operating responsibilities, such as helping to informally resolve program-related issues and mediating disagreements between the agency and the public. Including these responsibilities within the OIG would likely conflict with the Inspector General Act, which prohibits the transfer of program operating responsibilities to the Inspector General; yet, omitting these responsibilities would result in establishing an ombudsman that is not fully consistent with the function as defined within the ombudsman community.

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