March 07, 2016

Why Have Hawaiian Legislators Snubbed IOA in University Ombuds Bill?

Last week, fifteen state legislators have introduced a bill urging the University of Hawai'i system to establish an Ombuds program for its faculty, staff, and 55,000 students.  Despite widespread support for an Ombuds at UH, the legislators seem to have deliberately ignored the prevailing guidance offered by the International Ombudsman Association. 

By and large, the resolution presents a compelling argument for the creation of a typical University Ombuds.  For example:
WHEREAS, each University of Hawaii campus has established academic grievance policies and procedures that also focus primarily on discrimination and academic concerns; and
WHEREAS, an institutional exclusion of workplace concerns not relating to discrimination exists, in policy and organizationally, which fosters an environment in which problems may go unheard, untracked, and unresolved; and
WHEREAS, ombuds offices provide an easy first point of contact for a person with concerns or a misunderstanding of policies, as well as directing someone to an appropriate office or assisting them with following established procedures and timelines for complaints; and
WHEREAS, ombuds offices provide university chancellors and presidents unbiased, routine feedback regarding the university community's adherence to established policies; and
WHEREAS, eighty percent of "research one" universities have an ombuds office, and all but one of the University of Hawaii at Manoa's peer institutions have ombuds offices; and
WHEREAS, legislation was introduced during the Regular Session of 2015 that sought to establish an office of the ombuds at the University of Hawaii, and support for the legislation indicates a growing desire for the establishment of ombuds offices on every campus; and
WHEREAS, a system of ombuds offices can be established without duplicating or undermining preexisting resolution procedures; and
WHEREAS, ombuds offices must be independent, impartial, and confidential in order to best serve students, staff, and faculty....
The legislators therefore urge university administrators to immediately create a robust Ombuds program:
BE IT RESOLVED ... that the ombuds office report directly to the chancellors of each campus and the president of the University of Hawaii; and
* * *
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the ombuds office or offices be adequately resourced and financed as part of the University's base budget to ensure permanence; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Board of Regents seek feedback from each college campus to determine the composition and establishment of ombuds personnel and offices; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that, because changes affecting the University's budget take time, the Board of Regents may appoint interim officials to act in the capacity of ombudspersons but interim appointments should be no longer than one calendar year....
There is one significant and perplexing item in the bill: It specifically references USOA standards rather than those from IOA.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Board of Regents use the United States Ombudsman Association's published standards as a guide to establishing the ombuds office or offices.
The bill has not been referred to committee or submitted for a vote. (Hawaii State Legislature Bill Status, SR 38.)

Virtually all of the college and university Ombuds in the U.S. practice to standards promulgated by the International Ombudsman Association.  Most explicitly reference these standards in their materials. The first three Ombuds at UH were active members of IOA.  The reference to USOA must have been deliberate.  The question is why? 

Related posts: University of Hawaii Issues First Annual Report; Budget Cuts Force Closure of University of Hawaii Ombuds Office; Is the University of Hawai'i Planning to Reopen its Ombuds Offfice?; Hawaii Legislature Takes Up Bill to Reestablish Ombuds Office at University of Hawai'i; University of Hawai'i Chancellor to Hire Ombuds 'Soon'; Students at University of Hawai'i Back Return of Ombuds Office.


  1. Could it be that the university wants an Ombud with investigative powers? Maybe they're going for a different model than the IOA one.

  2. The most significant difference between IOA and USOA's standards of practice is USOA's allowance for investigative power. So, inherently, the USOA allows for an Ombuds with teeth whereas IOA focuses on facilitation. Perhaps Hawaii wishes to allow for that difference. Perhaps also there is a history between Hawaii and USOA, as the first "Public Ombuds" office was established in that state.

  3. Yes, Hawaii's state ombudsman is also USOA's president. I think I heard Robin Matsunaga once say that there are much more similarities between IOA and USOA in practice than one might think. From a broad Ombuds community perspective, it may be helpful to see how we can be more inclusive than divisive. What can we learn from each other? Maybe IOA and USOA should have a joint conference in a couple years to have cross-learning, cross collaboration, and embrace the diversity of Ombuds practice.

  4. Except, the bill says nothing about investigatory powers or official reporting duties, two fundamental attributes of USOA-type Ombuds including the HI Ombudsman.

    1. Well, I'd say it does - by virtue of including the USOA standards as a guide. Recommend someone educate them as to the differences in the models and make sure they are making an informed choice.

  5. Knowing the Hawaii community and legislature rather well, I don't think too much should be read into the reference to USOA. There are no current IOA members in Hawaii to educate the legislature on the difference, and the legislature funds (as in many classical ombuds situations) the Hawaii State Office of the Ombuds, which follows the USOA standards, so it may have been a simple misunderstanding. On the other hand, the Hawaii legislature is very suspicious of what is going on at the University (a long story), so maybe the investigatory function is something they would like. But again, knowing the community, I tend to think it was a misunderstanding.