July 31, 2009

Coke Reports Benefits of Ombuds Program

In its 2009 Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Report, Coca-Cola Enterprises touts its Ombuds program:
In the United States, we also have an Ombuds Office and a Solutions dispute resolution program. These offer confidential advice, support, and a vehicle for conflict resolution through mediation and arbitration. In 2008, our Solutions program received 63 employee requests for assistance in resolving workplace conflicts. Of cases concluded, 82 percent were resolved to the employee’s satisfaction. Our Solutions program was recognized in 2008 by Harvard Law School.

It's curious that CCE discloses the number of cases handled by the dispute resolution program but not the Ombuds. Surely, these data are available. (CCE Corp. Responsibility & Sustainability Rpt.)

People Want to Tell Their Story

The first meeting with an Ombuds is dominated by story telling. An Ombuds must get the visitor's narrative before anything else. Without the visitor's story, the Ombuds cannot adequately clarify options, explain policies, identify other resources, make referrals, offer coaching, or begin the work of opening lines of communication. Yet in many cases, there is an immediate benefit from simply listening to the visitor's narrative. Many visitors express relief at being able to explain how they came to be here. Yesterday, NPR profiled Michael Kimball, a writer who captures people's biographies in short form. His insights on asking people about their story resonated with me.
He says he thinks people tell him intimate details of their lives because they're not generally asked about them.

"I think it's something that just doesn't happen so much in our culture anymore," he says. "There are a lot of people who are putting themselves out there in different ways — everything from status updates to tweets to whatever is on their MySpace page or their own blog, but we don't have people asking questions."

Kimball says there are two ways to group people who come to the blog to have their life story written: Those who have an ego and want "how good and what they've done sort of given back to them" and those who have had interesting or difficult experiences and want to "reclaim" their lives.

Those are the people who interest him most, he says. But those can also be the most challenging.

Kimball aims to honor the difficulties of people's lives — and also present them in an even-handed way. He does not want to make them too sentimental — or too sensational. And the challenge has also changed him as a person.

"However much empathy I had before I started this, I have more now," Kimball says.

(All Things Considered.)

July 30, 2009

Job Posting: Harvard Medical School

Harvard University is accepting applications for an Ombudsperson at Harvard Medical School, School of Dental Medicine, and School of Public Health. The position has three major areas of responsibility: dispute resolution/consultation and referral; policy analysis; and community outreach and education. Applicants must have an advanced degree in a related field; demonstrated experience in conflict resolution, mediation and/or negotiation; and some prior supervisory experience. Prior experience in an academic or medical environment, and Ombuds experience is preferred. The salary range for the position is $87,800 to $155,400. No closing date indicated. (Harvard Job Posting, Compensation Schedule; via New England HERC.)

Linda J. Wilcox has served as the Ombuds for the Harvard Medical School since the office’s inception in 1991. She holds both a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study and a Master’s Degree in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Prior to coming to Harvard, Wilcox was a labor negotiator and mediator. (HMS Ombuds Office.)

Budget Deficit Threatens DC Schools Ombuds

Facing a $666 million budget deficit, the District of Columbia Council looking a widespread spending cuts to avoid raising taxes and fees. The school system will likely bear some of the burden. According to the Washington Post, "Elimination of the ombudsman's office, which has come under heavy criticism by council members and community leaders for ineffectiveness, would take about $360,000 off the books." (Washington Post.)

Let's be honest about this by looking at the numbers. The budget for the DCPS Ombuds Office represents just 0.05% of the shortfall. None of the other remedies mentioned are anywhere as trivial.

Furthermore, although it has been criticized for "ineffectiveness," the DCPS Ombuds has handled and resolved about 1,400 cases involving students and staff in its first 20 months of operation. If the Ombuds was able to avoid litigation in a few of those cases (a very conservative assumption), the District has saved far, far more than it has spent on the program. (The latest audited financial statement reveals DCPS spent $1.7 million on judgments and settlements and outside counsel in 2004.) In addition, the Ombuds generated recommendations that likely will help the District avoid more problems in the future.

The inescapable conclusion is that a decision to close the DC Schools Ombuds program now would reveal political and not financial motivations.


Related posts: DC Schools Appoints Interim Ombuds; Local Politics Threaten DC Schools Ombuds; Washington Post Conflates Ombuds Reporting Line With Neutrality; DC Mayor Blocks Transfer of Public Schools Ombuds Office.

July 29, 2009

CoFO Continues Work on Thorny Issues Facing Government Ombuds


At its annual meeting last month, the Coalition of Federal Ombudsmen tackled several issues that bear on the profession in the public sector.

  • FOIA Requests -- Panelists reflected on President Obama's Memorandum advising agencies to release information in the absence of specific, compelling reasons not to. The discussion recognized the inherent tension between the FOIA and the Ombuds’ confidentiality commitment, and the FOIA exemption specified in the Alternative Dispute Resolution Act.
  • Keynote Address -- The Honorable John Berry, Director of the Office of Personnel Management, offered the perspective that Ombuds give people a “fair shake” without resorting to legal processes.
  • Proposed Federal Ombudsman Act -- A panel of five Ombuds from different agencies discussed whether CoFO should move forward on a Federal Ombudsman Act that would require establishment of Ombudsman Offices in Federal agencies. In responses to audience questions and comments, it was agreed that the outcome of a pending survey of CoFO members would dictate the course of future CoFO action.
  • Business Meeting -- CoFO Chair Mike Turpenoff concluded the conference by addressing the process of electing officers, further consideration of a revised CoFO Charter, the creation of a Federal job series for Ombudsman, and CoFO serving as a consultant for the creation of an Ombuds program at the Office of Personnel Management.
The next CoFO meeting is set for September 9, 2009. (CoFO Meeting Minutes.)

Prior post: COFO Sets Conference Agenda.

July 28, 2009

Angola to Host Conference of African Ombuds and Mediators

Lawrence Mushwana, executive secretary of African Ombudspersons and Mediators Association (AOMA), announced that the Angolan Ministry of Foreign Affairs guaranteed to support third conference of AOMA to analyse protocol matters. Mushwana said the meeting in April 2010 will be open to a variety of officials, and entities from different countries and levels of development. Participants are expected to share experiences aimed at increasing transparency in the management of legal issues. (AllAfrica.com.)

Related post: Angola Marks Ombuds Bicentennial.

July 27, 2009

Job Posting: University of Minnesota

UM is hiring a Student Ombuds to work 14 hours/week in its Student Conflict Resolution Office. Applicants must be a current UM Graduate Student (or starting in Fall 09) and have one year of experience. No indication of salary; open until filled. (UM Job Site, req. no. 162037.)

Related posts: Seeking Leverage, Minnesota Students Reveal Work with Ombuds; IOA Announces Board Nominees; IOA Board Elects Officers.

New Ombuds at Western Colorado

Shelley Jansen has been named as the Campus Ombudsperson for Western State College of Colorado. Jansen wears several hats: her full job title is Associate Vice-President of Student Affairs & Director of Campus Life. In these roles, Jansen is responsible for Judicial Affairs, Health Center, education prevention coordinator, Student Government Association, Wilderness Pursuits, and new student orientation. Jansen has worked at Western since 1999. (WSC News.)

July 26, 2009

IOA Announces First Step Toward Certification Program

The International Ombudsman Association's Board of Directors has approved bylaws for a new entity that will credential Organizational Ombuds. The governance documents will establish the Board of Certification, which will be empowered to bestow the Certified Organizational Ombudsman Practitioner designation: CO-OP. The IOA Board is expected to announce a slate of directors for the CO-OP Board shortly. The objective is for an initial qualifying exam to be offered in the Fall of 2009.

Related posts: Seizing the Opportunity of Professionalization; The Value of Certification; Cogent Critique of Certification.

Update: California Restores Funding for Long-Term Care Ombuds

Despite protracted budget problems bedeviling the state, California legislators passed Assembly Bill 392 to provide $1.6 million for local Long-Term Care Ombudsman over the next year. The funding bill reverses part of the money Governor Schwarzenegger cut last year from the programs that protect California´s vulnerable and elderly residents of nursing care and assisted living facilities. (California Chronicle; AB 392 History.)

Prior post: California Decimates Long-Term Care Ombuds Program.

July 23, 2009

Cogent Critique of Certification

Blogger and conflict expert L. Deborah Sword provides a concise argument against against certification for mediators. Her cautionary point of view may summarize many of the objections Organizational Ombuds have against certification.
  • Conflict Resolution is an ancient tradition that hasn't needed certification;
  • Standardizing the process ignores the continuum of conflict resolution practice;
  • Conflict resolution is interdisciplinary and inclusive by nature while certification suggests that best practice and the principles can be quantified. Exclusionary requirements, such as needing the certification of one discipline or another, or some over-riding body, are contra-intuitive to the flexible, evolutionary nature of conflict resolution;
  • Education of users is the best protection, the alternative is to keep conflict resolution as mysterious and labyrinthine as the law, so that only practitioners understand it and problems must be turned over to the practitioner for resolution;
  • Conflict Resolution is a life skill and there should not be any mystery about conflict resolution that demands that only professionals are licensed to practice.
  • Conflict resolution personalities (such as clear thinking, calm, appropriate risk taking, wisdom and a sense of humor) cannot be assessed by credentialing schemes;
  • Whose interests are being served? It seems to be the certificate granting agencies stand to gain the most; and
  • Where is the research? The data indication that "some practitioners are incompetent" is purely anecdotal and does not adequately justify certification.
Sword concludes that certification "seems to really be protection for the self-interest of the practitioner" that will exclude "the elders, the community workers, the intuitive naturals, those with stature in their cultures and others who have been doing the work for years without recognition or credit for the value of the work they are doing." (Mediate.com.)

While I generally support certification for Organizational Ombuds, Sword's thoughtful critique of similar efforts to standardize mediation practice makes me more ambivalent. There is one significant distinction, however. One factor motivating Ombuds certification is the quest for a privilege. Mediators and Classical Ombuds generally enjoy a legal protection for their confidential communications with parties. Organizational Ombuds, although presenting analogous policy arguments for a privilege, have had mixed success when the issue has been litigated. Recognizing that many jurisdictions reserve the creation of privileges to the legislatures, Organizational Ombuds hope that certification will reassure law makers that Organizational Ombuds can be trusted. Nonetheless, the concerns raised by Sword must not be forgotten as certification advocates pursue their goal.

Related posts: International Mediation Institute Reveals Certification Plans; Mediate.com Unveils Certification Program; ACR Revives Certification Efforts

Party-Directed Mediation Guide

The University of California division of Agriculture and Natural Resources has updated its guide to conflict resolution. The 2009 edition, "Party-Directed Mediation: Helping Others Resolve Differences," is available as a free PDF. The approach differs from typical mediations, where the neutral dominates conversation, as is consistent with the approach taken by Ombuds when facilitating dialog. (UCANR Party-Directed Mediation 2, via Campus-ADR Weblog.)

July 22, 2009

Berkeley Ombuds Office Marks Quarter Century

The Staff Ombuds Office at the University of California, Berkeley celebrates its 25 year anniversary with an open house on Wednesday, July 29th. Guests will include three former staff ombuds and Margo Wesley, the former director who recently retired. (UC Berkeley Events.)

Related posts: New Ombuds at Cal Berkeley; Margo Wesley to Retire.

July 21, 2009

Biased Reporting on Tulsa Library Ombuds Program

in 2006, the Tulsa City-County Library implemented a Ombuds program to handle employee complaints about coworkers and supervisors. However, an investigation by the Tulsa World newspaper found that only a handful of the 325 employees used the ombudsman program last year. One former employee said that many of her coworkers do not trust the confidentiality of the program because Charlotte Frazier, the library's Ombuds and associate director of support services, reports directly to the library's CEO. Frazier said she was aware of this perception, but does not break confidentiality or mention specifics when she reports on trends. The COO said the library is aware of the need to address the perception of the Ombuds and would consider hiring an outsider if that would "help the system." Tulsa World also reported that the library is "is spending thousands of dollars each year for employee counseling that involves job stress, co-worker complaints or other issues." The library spends about $6,000 a year for counseling as part of an employee assistance program. (Tulsa World.)

As far as the Ombuds issue is concerned, this is a terrible piece of reporting. The newspaper interviewed a single disgruntled former employee, who repeated second-hand criticism, and the library Ombuds, who's practices are in keeping with standards for the profession. Even more frustrating is the implication that the direct reporting line from the Ombuds to the CEO was inappropriate. Clearly, the concept of informal conflict resolution needs better representation in Oklahoma.

Related post: Maine Library to Choose Ombuds.

Mediation Myths Debunked

In the wake recent articles describing mediation as one of the best jobs, Diane Levin refutes five urban legends about the profession:
  • 24 (or 30 or 40) hours of training is all you need to become a mediator -- No, it’s not. [...] Beyond that first mediation training, it takes additional education and advanced training, including supervision by experienced practitioners over the course of dozens of cases, to develop the capacity to mediate effectively.
  • Lawyers are already qualified to mediate by virtue of their profession and need little if any mediation training -- As a matter of fact, most people - and that includes lawyers - have little if any formal training in negotiation theory and skills, despite the fact that negotiating is something we all do daily. Moreover, the kind of negotiation that many lawyers are familiar with is traditional distributive, value-claiming bargaining and not the integrative, value-creating negotiation that mediation offers.
  • Lawyers always make the best mediators -- Exceptional mediators come from a wide range of occupations and backgrounds. [...] No one occupation serves as automatic guarantee of mediation talent.
  • Online training in mediation is a great way to get certified as a mediator -- Online training for mediators warrants a special caveat. I have said this before and it is worth repeating: online mediation training which purports to prepare students for face-to-face mediation is not worth your time and money.
  • I can make big money as a mediator-right after I finish my 30-hour training -- No, you can’t. Can you succeed in a career in mediation? Yes. But it takes hard work, effort, a sound business and marketing plan, a little luck, and a substantial investment in time.
(Mediation Channel.)

Fellow mediation blogger Tammy Lenski debunks one more:
  • I’m a certified mediator -- You are, are you? Are you sure? Says who? [...] The certificate does not mean you’re certified. It means you’re certificated.
(Making Mediation You Day Job.)

Related post: "Best Careers" Include Mediators.

As the field of Organizational Ombudsing matures into a profession, it will likely need to debunk the same myths. To wit:
  • Training alone is not be sufficient to become an Ombuds;
  • Lawyers [or any others] are not qualified simply by dint of their profession to be Ombuds;
  • Lawyers do not make the best Ombuds;
  • On-line training will not be the best way to become certificated as an Ombuds;
  • New Ombuds generally don't make big money; and
  • Certification is still a ways off.

July 20, 2009

Ombuds Training in Bangkok

The International Ombudsman Association is offering two courses for Ombuds at the UN Conference Center in Bangkok, Thailand, September 7-9, 2009.
  • Ombudsman 101 (Sept. 7-8) An introductory program for new Ombudsman or those seeking information about the organizational Ombudsman role.
  • Conflict Resolution through a Cultural Lens (Sept. 9) A specialized course to prepare participants to recognize and resolve conflicts characterized by multi-cultural perspectives.
Courses will be taught by Frank Fowlie, Ombudsman for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN); Georgia Shaver, Ombudsman for the United Nations World Food Programme; Mim Gaetano, Asia Pacific/AIME Ombudsman for Mars, Inc.; Asha Williams, Mediator for the International Labour Office; Wilbur Hicks, Ombudsperson for the International Monetary Fund; and John Barkat, Assistant Secretary-General/Ombudsman for the United Nations. Priority registration ends Friday, July 24. (IOA Bangkok Training Info.)

Should the Corporate Responsibility Officer be an Ombuds?

Kevin Moss, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at BT Americas, recently noticed the close functional relationship between Ombuds and Corporate Responsibility Officers.
I think for those of us in corporate responsibility it is interesting to consider to what extent our role should contain components of the role of a news ombudsman. I am not sure many companies would pay for someone to be vocally critical of them outside the organization - maybe it has applicability in the media sector that it doesn’t have in other sectors. But I think that enlightened businesses do benefit from an open culture that encourages open constructive criticism, internally if not externally, and the CR folks should be taking a lead by taking that on as a part of their role.

In a follow-up comment, John Zinsser wonders, "why aren't CROs and Organizational Ombuds working together to embed themselves in every organization of consequence?" (CSR Perspective.)

Basketball Executive Offers Negotiating Nuggets of Wisdom

Denver Nuggets vice president of basketball operations and NBA Executive of the Year, Mark Warkentien, reveals five negotiating lessons he learned from the Harvard Negotiation Institute:
  • Keep trying to improve -- "We're always on the players to take the time to get better," Warkentien said, and so he applied the same dictate to himself.
  • Prepare -- Before a GM sits down at the negotiating table, he needs to understand what the player's agent is going to say. That understanding is crucial to negotiation, especially multi-party negotiations.
  • Get out of the office -- Put away the Blackberry and the cell phone and get on an airplane. "Whenever you can, you need to close the personal distance," Warkentien said.
  • Learn from your own lessons -- "There's only a handful of places that can be like Duke, and everybody else has to scramble," he said. Which comes back around to the need for flexibility in negotiations, based on an understanding of the opponent and his arguments.
  • Turn adversaries into partners -- For starters, don't speak like you're the boss. And whatever you do, don't say 'but.'
(Sports Illustrated, via Harvard PON Blog.) This article may be a useful handout for presentations to athletics departments or sports lovers.

In a related note, Diane Levin points out that the Harvard PON has joined the blogosphere. However, their blog is primarily a running advertisement for their training programs. (The article about Mark Weinstein is a rare exception.) Levin says, "Blogging isn’t about constant self-promotion. It’s not about continually plugging stuff you sell." I agree. (Mediation Channel.)

July 18, 2009

Job Posting: Florida Gulf Coast University

FGCU is hiring a University Ombuds/Assistant to the President to assist students, faculty, staff and others identify and evaluate options for resolving and managing conflicts, provide mediation services, conduct workshops on conflict management, and make referrals to other appropriate resources. Candidates should have an advanced degree with at least six years of experience in higher education. Salary is between $65,000 and $75,000. Applications must be submitted online by August 21, 2009. (FGCU Jobs, REQ#1022; Higher Ed Jobs.)

The position has been vacant since the retirement of the founding Ombuds, Charles McKinney, earlier this year. The Interim Ombuds is Melissa McIntosh, who also serves as the university's Assistant General Counsel. (FGCU Board of Trustees Resolution of Appreciation; FGCU Office of Judicial Affairs, Office of General Counsel.)

Related posts: Florida Gulf Coast U Adds Part-Time Ombuds; University Attorney Recommends Settlements - Blames Ombuds for Upholding Standards; FGCU Follow Up.

July 16, 2009

New Bayer Ombuds Interviewed

Last week, Bayer Corp. announced that Melissa Cameron had been appointed as its newest Ombuds. According to an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Cameron has served in the role since March. As Ombuds, she serves 17,000 employees in the United States and Canada. Cameron said, "Right now I would say over 50 percent of our call volume is related to human resource-related issues: concerns about harassment, discrimination and lately I've had some concerns about insider theft." She also explained that her office follows IOA standards of practice. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

Prior post: Bayer Corp. Names New Ombuds.

July 15, 2009

First Report From Iowa State University Ombuds

Elaine Newell, the ISU's Ombuds has issued an "annual report" covering the first eight-plus months of her office's operations. The ISU Ombuds program was permanently established last fall following a pilot program of two years. Between September 12, 2008, and May 31, 2009, Newell handled 73 cases from faculty, staff and students. At least 30% of the cases involved multiple issues, with supervisor conflict being the most prevalent. "I've seen a wide variety of issues presented, but a consistent theme is that people work hard and want to be respected for the contribution they're making," Newell said. Professional and scientific staff accounted for 38.3% percent of the visits to the ombuds office, followed by faculty at 28.7%, graduate or professional students at 13.6%. "This report shows that no single group has cornered the market on workplace conflict," explained Newell. (Inside Iowa State.)

Related posts: Iowa State Loses First Permanent Ombuds, Quickly Hires Replacement; Profile of Iowa State Ombuds.

July 14, 2009

2009 ACR Conference Features Ombuds

Details of the Ninth Annual ACR Conference in Atlanta have been released. The gathering on October 7-10 will feature several sessions of interest to Ombuds, including:
  • The Role of the Ombuds in Organizational Politics and Justice with Belinda Newman, the Ombuds for the University of North Texas, and Sean Banks, Director & Company Ombuds for Shell Oil Co.;
  • Ombudsing in a Distressed Community with Wayne Blair and Laurie Mesibov, Ombuds at the University of North Carolina At Chapel Hill; and
  • Ombuds/Ombudsman Section Meeting.
The keynote address will be offered by Reverend Nelson and Joyce Johnson, who organized the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission 18 years ago. Early registration ends August 10. (ACR Conf. Brochure.)

July 13, 2009

Immigration Expert Says USCIS Ombuds Should Have More Power

Angelo A. Paparelli, partner at Seyfarth Shaw and publisher of the Nation of Immigrants Blog, reviews the latest annual report from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman and finds it too temperate. Paparelli says, "With altogether too much toleration and not enough outrage for my taste, the Ombudsman's report restates longstanding USCIS problems but does not condemn the lack of significant forward movement." He also believes that the existence of the USCIS Ombuds Office has allowed Congress to shrug off its oversight responsibility.

Paparelli also argues that the USCIS Ombudsman's authority should be expanded to cover Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol. He says that "if the Obama Administration and Congress are serious about the proper functioning of the federal immigration system, they would also create Offices of the Ombudsman for the Departments of Labor and State, and place a 'Tri-Department' Ombudsman on top, so that stakeholders really have a "seat at the table" for comprehensive immigration reform." (Angelo Paparelli on Dysfunctional Government; USCIS Ombuds 2009 Report.)

Related posts: Profile of New Immigration Ombuds; Leading Immigration Lawyer Urges Obama to Retain USCIS Ombuds; How to Become the Next Immigration Ombuds.

Conflict Resolution Day Contests for Students

The Association for Conflict Resolution is sponsoring two new contests for Conflict Resolution Day 2009. College students are invited to create and submit a two minute or less video displaying the power of conflict resolution. For students in elementary through high school, a poetry contest is planned for the Fall. Conflict Resolution Day is an annual event that takes place this year on October 15. (ACR Update, July 2009.)

July 10, 2009

Bayer Corp. Names New Ombuds

Yesterday, Bayer Corporation announced the appointment of Melissa Cameron as its new Ombudsman. Previously, Cameron served as a Senior Attorney and Director of Compliance for a Bayer medical subsidiary, MEDRAD. She earned her JD from Duquesne University School of Law and Bachelor of Arts from Allegheny College. Cameron is a Certified Compliance & Ethics Professional. As Bayer's Ombuds, she will report directly to President and CEO Greg Babe. She succeeds Kimberly Koerner, who held the position since 2004. (Bayer Press Release.)

Giving Better Praise

Ombuds often coach individuals to improve interpersonal relationships by increasing the amount of positive feedback they give. Author Gretchen Rubin has a great summary of how to give better praise:
  1. Be specific
  2. Find a way to praise sincerely
  3. Never offer praise and ask for a favor in the same conversation
  4. Don’t over-praise
  5. Look for something less obvious to praise
  6. Don’t hesitate to praise people who get a lot of praise already
  7. Praise people behind their backs
  8. Beware when a person asks for your honest opinion
  9. Don’t damn with faint praise
Her blog is an excellent resource for mindful living. (The Happiness Blog.)

July 09, 2009

IOI Secretariat Relocating to Vienna

The International Ombudsman Institute has accept the application of the Austrian Ombudsman Board and will move its administrative offices from Edmonton, Canada, to Vienna, Austria, later this year. The latest IOI newsletter also recaps the activities of members worldwide. (IOI Newsletter, March 2009.)

Related post: IOI Newsletter Announces 2009 Conference in Sweden.

July 08, 2009

Job Posting: Food & Drug Administration

The US Dept. of Health and Human Services agency is hiring an Association Ombudsman for its office in Rockville, MD. The position serves as an Organizational Ombuds for FDA employees: a confidential and informal information resource, facilitator consultant and practitioner for dispute resolution. (This is not Center for Drug Evaluation and Research Ombuds position, which is an external Ombuds.) Applicants must have at least one year of ADR experience. The GS-14 position pays $102,721 to $133,543 per year. Applications are due Friday, July 17, 2009. (USAJobs, job ann. no. PH-FH-268667-(DEU/MP).)

Prior: Job Posting.

July 07, 2009

Staffing Arrangement at Federal Student Aid Ombuds Office Raises Conflict of Interest Concerns

An article in Inside Higher Ed reveals that Ombuds program at the student aid agency is staffed by Vangent, Inc., a company that also helps the department in collection efforts. In addition, several of Vangent's employees working in the Ombuds' office formerly worked on loan collections. Vangent provides staff to the Department of Education under a 10-year, $300 million contract that covers a range of services, including staff for the Ombudsman Office. This arrangement troubles financial aid experts like Mark Kantrowitz of Finaid.org, who questions the neutrality of the staff.
"The purpose of an ombudsman's office is to have a disinterested body looking at the problems that students are bringing to its attention, and try to negotiate with lenders to resolve problems," said Kantrowitz. "If you're a borrower, would you call the ombudsman if you knew people there worked for a company that does collection of debt?"

A spokesperson for Education Department said that an investigation into the matter concluded the concerns were overblown. (Inside Higher Ed.)

Whether or not there is a legitimate conflict of interest may be a moot point. The mere perception that the FSA Ombuds staff are biased could significantly undermine the work of the program. As conflict resolution professionals, the FSA Ombuds staff must be vigilant about protecting their reputation for neutrality and fairness. The Department of Education may need to do more to restore the image of the FSA Ombuds Office.

Legislation Would Create Education Ombuds for New York City

A pair of bills pending in the NY State Legislature would create an Ombuds program for the nation's largest public school system. A bill in the State Senate, S5739, aims to reform governance system for the NYC schools by strengthening parent representation in decision-making and providing enhanced mechanisms for accountability and transparency. The bill would establish an independent Office of the Ombudsperson, but does not provide specifics. (NY S5739 Summary.)

A separate bill in the State Assembly, A8705, creates parent participation boards in each community school district and requires each board to establish an Office of Education Ombudsperson. The Ombuds Offices would be charged with operating and supporting the parent participation boards. (NY A8705 Summary.)

Wilfred Laurier Ombuds Publishes Annual Report

Jennifer Laurie, the new Ombuds for the private university in Waterloo, ON, reported that 41 individuals were assisted by her office in the 2008-09 academic year. In four of the cases, some type of intervention beyond providing information or advice was required. These involved mediation or required an altered course of action by the University. (WLU Ombuds 2008-09 Report.)

Related post: Wilfrid Laurier University Hires Ombuds.

July 06, 2009

Amherst College Ombuds Office Closes

The website for the Ombuds Office at Amherst has been updated recently to state that, "the Ombudsperson position is currently vacant." The outgoing message on the voicemail confirms the closure, but says that, "a new Ombudsperson may be appointed soon." Callers are referred to Amherst's HR or Diversity and Inclusion Office for assistance. Ruth B. Thornton had served as the Ombuds. (Amherst Ombuds.)

UC San Francisco Ombuds Program Remains On Hold

A report on diversity efforts to top administrators at the University of California San Francisco reaffirmed the campus is committed to implementing an Ombuds program consistent with IOA standards. Recently published details from the UCSF Leadership Panel on Diversity, however, state that plans are on hold pending budget considerations. (UCSF Update on Improving Staff Diversity.)

Prior post: UC San Francisco Postpones Ombuds Office.

MD Anderson Ombuds Posts Annual Summary

The Ombuds Office at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center has released its report for the 2008 fiscal year. A total of 458 visitors brought 297 cases to the office. Seventy percent of the visitors were staff, and 57% of the concerns involved strained workplace relationships, most commonly between supervisor and staff. (MD Anderson Ombuds, 2008 Report.)

Related post: New Websites Offer Resources for Ombuds.

University of North Carolina Ombuds: Employee Visits Up Fourfold

Wayne Blair, UNC's University Ombuds, said that issues employees have brought to his office have quadrupled since last summer. Speaking at a staff retreat, Blair said anxieties rose last fall when growing budget shortfalls made it clear that some layoffs in 2009 were inevitable. Now those layoffs are starting to take place, and Blair said the stress for both the employees affected and the managers who have to authorize the layoffs was real. (UNC Gazette.)

July 05, 2009

Baylor Defers Consideration of Staff Ombuds

The Staff Council at Baylor University, which has been considered creating an Ombuds for Staff since 2005, has put the project on hold pending the appointment of a new HR Director. According to recently published Staff Council minutes, the Ombuds Committee put the discussion on hold until a new HR structure is in place. In addition, it noted that the are still questions about the reporting structure for the proposed Ombuds position. Baylor has had a Faculty Ombuds since 2003. (Baylor Staff Council Minutes 2/14/06, 9/12/06, 4/14/09; Baylor Faculty Ombuds.)

Related post: Baylor Names Faculty Ombuds.

NY Senate Considering Ombuds to Oversee Federal Stimulus Money

A New York State Senator and Assemblymember have introduced legislation to create a dedicated federal Stimulus Ombudsman’s office. The position would be an independent watchdog charged with ensuring the expected $27 billion in federal stimulus money is spent properly in the Empire State. (NY S5879 bill Tracking; Senator Serano Announcement.)

July 02, 2009

New Ombuds at American Red Cross

Kevin Jessar has been appointed the new Corporate Ombudsman for the American Red Cross. He will head a four-person office that was created by federal statute in October 2007 as part of sweeping governance modernization reforms at the Red Cross. Jessar brings a wealth of Ombuds experience to the position. He is the immediate past president of IOA and was an Ombuds at the National Institutes of Health since 2000 and served as NIH Deputy Ombudsman from 2007-2009.

Prior posts: First Red Cross Ombuds Promises to Strengthen "Sacred Trust" With Public; Red Cross Ombuds Publishes Inaugural Report and Announces Cut-Backs; Is Red Cross Ombuds Stepping Down?; Red Cross Appoints Interim Director of Ombuds Office.

Job Posting: Kaiser Permanente San Francisco

Kaiser is accepting applications for a HealthCare Ombudsman/Mediator in San Francisco. This is a part-time position, 32 hours/week, day shift. Extensive clinical health care experience (10+ years) and Ombuds training or experience is required. No closing date or salary indicated. (KP Careers.)

ABA Dispute Resolution Conference Call for Proposals

The ABA Section on Dispute Resolution has issued a call for proposals for its annual meeting in April 2010 in San Francisco. The conference planners put a priority on proposals that introduce new and innovative concepts, demonstrate diversity of presenters’ backgrounds, include 2-4 presenters with demonstrated expertise, and provide significant depth of coverage of the subject matter. Proposals are due by August 24. The quality of presentations and number of attendees makes this the leading dispute resolution conference in the country. Unfortunately, it conflicts with the IOA conference. (ABA DR Conf Call for Proposals.)

July 01, 2009

Brown University Ombuds Office is Latest Closure

Recently published minutes from a Brown Faculty Executive Committee meeting reveals that the University's Faculty Ombuds Office "is temporarily closed effective July 1, 2009 and will reopen in the foreseeable future." The minutes also state that, "In the meantime, Valerie Wilson (new Director of Institutional Diversity effective July 1), Dean Vohra or the FEC can hear faculty’s concerns depending on the situations." A call to the the Office of the President confirmed that the Ombuds Office has closed and that Flora A. Keshgegian, who served as Faculty Ombudsperson since August 2006, was no longer with the University. The telephone number for her office has been disconnected. (Brown FEC Minutes, 4/28/09; Brown Ombuds Webpage.)

Related posts: Brown University Ombuds Issues Second Annual Report.

Other recent university Ombuds office closures: Pepperdine University; California Institute of Technology; Smith College; Pace University.

NPR's Ombuds Has the Loneliest Job in the Newsroom

As the neutral intermediary between public radio listeners and staffers, NPR’s Alicia Shepard says she has “the loneliest job in the newsroom.” This and other observations will sound familiar to Organizational Ombuds. For example, Shepard says it took the first six months of her two-year contract just to learn how NPR works.
It’s no doubt hard to justify spending money on an ombudsman when the newsroom budget is being slashed. And it’s easy to dismiss an ombudsman’s defense of his value as simply self-interest. But there’s a difference between having citizens point out errors and flaws, and having an independent observer inside a news organization with “a hall pass and a platform,” as New York Times executive editor Bill Keller describes an ombudsman.

Ombudsmen like [the Washington Posts] Alexander and Shepard may never be beloved, but they do play an important role. Their presence is a clear signal that the news organization cares about the public’s concerns and will take steps to respond. And they can also serve as a deterrent. The knowledge that someone is watching, someone with the authority to draw public attention to errors and ethical missteps, may help keep them from happening in the first place.

(Advancing the Story.)

Related posts: More Thoughts on the Decline of News Ombuds; News Ombuds to Meet in Washington; News Ombuds Also Vulnerable to Budget Cuts.

OO Blogger: The "Due Care" Process

Clayton Gilman's latest post discusses a recent case involving a young Canadian couple who sought his intervention with the Ontario Ombudsman. Using a “due care” process, Gilman determined the validity of the complaint -- checking facts and gathering information from other sources. Ultimately he did not intervene, but served primarily as a sounding board for the couple. (Organizational Ombudsman Blog.)

Innovations in Collaboration and Conflict Resolution

The Center for Public Policy Dispute Resolution at the University of Texas at Austin offers several courses that may be of interest to Ombuds, including:
  • Staying with Conflict: Working with Ongoing Disputes - Dr. Bernie Mayer, Professor at the Werner Institute at Creighton University;
  • Creating Value Through Negotiation - Melissa Manwaring, Director of Curriculum Development at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School; and
  • The Public Policy Facilitator's Toolbox: Designing Processes for Multi-State Initiatives - Bill Potapchuk, President of Community Building Institute.
The two-day courses are offered as part of the Skills Enrichment Institute, July 29-31, 2009. (Innovations in Collaboration Info).