The following essay was submitted by Nick Diehl, a Past President of the International Ombudsman Association and currently an Ombudsperson at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It relates to several of the topics discussed at the IOA annual conference.
Bringing Clarity is Key to Advancing the Field
As a person who is equal parts skeptical and unrealistically optimistic, I wanted to share some reflections on the International Ombudsman Association (IOA) and the state of the Organizational Ombudsman field.
For some background, I have been volunteering in a number of different capacities since before the merger of The Ombudsman Association and the University and College Ombuds Association in 2005. I have served on four committees, multiple task forces (including currently) and the Board of Directors. I have also served as an ombuds in five different offices in the federal government, higher ed, nonprofit and international sectors, respectively. Each of these experiences has revealed both strengths and weaknesses of IOA and our field.
I will start with sharing some optimism about some things I observed at the Annual Conference in New Orleans this week. First, it was great to see such a well-attended conference with participants who are engaged and enthusiastic. Even the final sessions of the event on Wednesday had strong numbers, in competition with a beautiful day in New Orleans.
I believe a very healthy sign for IOA is that we are grappling with issues that are both important to us and challenging. One of the themes that ran throughout the event was related to the balance of authentic and respectful communication within our own field. We need to continue to lean into that as we hold each other accountable for civility and work toward resisting avoidance and knee-jerk emotional responses to differing opinions.
I frequently provide feedback on issues of concern to me about how IOA functions. I hope that recipients of my views understand them to come from a place of constructive support. My impression is that our Board and new management partner, SBI, are receptive.
Along with my optimism, I also have some concerns about some fundamental issues that are facing the ombuds field that we need to continue to address. Some of these are longstanding and currently having a negative impact on the field. The longer we delay engaging to address them the more difficult it will become to do so.
One major concern, which Jon Lee raised during his keynote at the conference, is that of ensuring the quality of service that ombuds are providing within our respective organizations. A necessary aspect, and potential liability, of our practices is independence from direct practice oversight within our institutions. As a result, ombuds (especially those who practice solo) are in the position of self-monitoring in relation to practicing within the IOA standards.
It is important for us as a field to find a mechanism to get feedback on how we navigate challenges to the standards within our own offices. We should not be immune from accountability for functioning within our standards.
It is clear and alarming from discussions in some IOA conference sessions that many people do not adhere to the IOA SOPs in their work. I have observed some discussions of case scenarios that pose an obvious challenge to the SOPs, and I have been surprised by the ambiguity of responses. These deviations do not necessarily relate to limitations of state law or regulatory compliance, rather elective decisions that contradict standards in relation to confidentiality and conduct.
It is good practice for IOA to review our standards periodically and important to continue to find ways to reinforce what have been proven to be best practices. For years we have avoided doing so for fear of alienating people who do not comply with the standards. By failing to clearly define what the organizational ombudsman practice is – and the best way to do it – we will always have a difficult time making a coherent argument for why we should exist.
As advocates for this field, IOA members and leadership should advance our opinions and consideration of this subject so that we are able to achieve clarity. There will be disagreement and distress, but that is the inevitable experience when people are passionate about their beliefs and visions for the future. Living in different, parallel worlds in relation to our core practices will eventually undermine the field.
Time and distance are always challenges to ongoing dialogue (not to mention work responsibilities), but maybe we can exchange ideas online to work constructively through the year. We will then be more prepared for a robust and focused conversation at the conference next year.
I am very excited about how IOA is positioned for growth with our new management partner; a Board that is transforming into a strategic leadership body; and a new executive director who can execute our plans. At the same time, we need to continue to find ways to bring internal alignment to who we are and what we do as practitioners.
As I return to my optimistic core, I have hope that we can achieve these things based on the energy and engagement I experienced at the conference. We do not lack passion, but we do lack cohesion. Bringing clarity is foundational to moving our field forward.
Related posts: MIT Adds an Experienced Ombuds; Guest Post: The Thread that Unites Us All – A Celebration of Ombuds Day*; After a Rocky Year, IOA Announces Search for Executive Director; Continuity Marks IOA's Leadership Team for 2019.