Environmental Protection:

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

GAO-02-947T: Published: Jul 16, 2002. Publicly Released: Jul 16, 2002.

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The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) hazardous waste ombudsman was first established within the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response as a result of the 1984 amendments to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Over time, EPA expanded the national ombudsman's jurisdiction to include Superfund and other hazardous waste programs managed by the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, and, by March 1996, EPA had designated ombudsmen in each of its 10 regional offices. Although the national ombudsman's activities ranged from providing information to investigating the merits of complaints, in recent years, the ombudsman played an increasingly prominent role through his investigations of citizen complaints. Pending legislation would reauthorize an office of the ombudsman within EPA. In November 2001, the EPA Administrator announced that the national ombudsman would be relocated from the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response to the Office of Inspector General (OIG) and would address concerns across the spectrum of EPA 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 inquiries from the public. If EPA intends to have an ombudsman function that is 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 national ombudsman, as the position is currently envisioned, still will not be able to exercise independent control over the budget and staff resources needed to implement the function. Prior to the reorganization, the national ombudsman could independently determine which cases to pursue; however, according to EPA, the Inspector General has the overall responsibility for the work performed by the Office, and no single staff member has the authority to select and prioritize his or her own caseload independent of all other needs. Finally, placing the ombudsman in the OIG could also affect the activities of the Inspector General.

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