September 07, 2012

ICANN Ombuds on Why Ombuds Must be Vigilant About Neutrality

In his latest blog posting, Chris LaHatte, the Ombudsman for the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers, explains why Ombuds must protect their neutrality at all times.  He sees the duty of neutrality as equal in importance to Ombuds and to judges.

LaHatte writes:
The importance of this neutrality is that when a complainant comes to the ombudsman with an issue, the ombudsman cannot forming any opinion until the investigation is completed. In my view it goes further. There must be particular care in an investigation, when information is sought from affected parties, that the questioning does not disclose any particular bias and that the questions are purely a fact or opinion seeking exercise.The requirement for neutrality however, extends beyond the investigations. There is no doubt that as the result of an investigation that an ombudsman may from time to time deliver a strong view about conduct which they regard as unacceptable. That is of course a most important part of the role of an ombudsman.

So the complainants must have confidence in the office of the ombudsman in that they must not be deterred by any views expressed by the ombudsman in other forums. This effectively means that an ombudsman should be very careful not to publicly disclose any particular political preference or views about issues which are likely to come into the office, such as gender or race or sexual orientation. An ombudsman is of course a human being, and may hold political views. But it would be difficult if those views were to be advocated in any official or semi official role.
LaHatte says this principle of neutrality applies to Organizational Ombuds, Parliamentary Ombuds, and Ombuds such as the ICANN ombudsman.  (ICANN Ombudsman Blog.)


  1. Chris is absolutely right. Of the Ombuds' ethical duties, neutrality may take the most work. Unlike independence, confidentiality, and informality, the Ombuds must monitor their every statement and action to preserve the appearance of neutrality.

  2. May I suggest for the ombuds community to seek a dialogue with the mediation scene for decades of learning loops of mediators regarding neutrality ?

    The intention to guard the effectiveness of the ombuds office as a facilitator of trust and communication is noble. And I understand the author's intention to go far beyond just the "appearance of being neutral."

    For discussion purposes I offer my own experience which leads me to believe in full personal transparency of bias and political views. I suggest an ombuds person to at least be open with her/himself about own "views about issues which are likely to come into the office." Preferably, he or she should be open about these views in public, as well. These personal views should be entirely in line with the VALUES of the organisation, the society and the idea of ombuds. The minimum standard is liekly to be the Universal Declaration of Human Righst and its Art 1: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

    I therefore believe an ombuds person can only be effect AS an advocate of these values. Rather than being silent about a personal bias against such values for the benfit of "appearing neutral" an ombuds person should resign - hopefully stating the reasons behind the resignation.

    Its not neutrality which is being sought by stakeholders. Its the advocacy of (basically shared) values and bi- or all-partite appreciation of needs and values (and generally good intentions) which seem to build the hallmark of the ombuds function.

    I believe we all agree on this - so this is for clarification only.