April 14, 2019

Guest Post: Bringing Clarity is Key to Advancing the Field

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 OmbudsGuest Post: The Thread that Unites Us All – A Celebration of Ombuds Day*After a Rocky Year, IOA Announces Search for Executive DirectorContinuity Marks IOA's Leadership Team for 2019.


  1. Marcia Gee Riley4/15/2019 11:13 PM

    Thank you, Nick, for your candor and thoughtful observations. I was encouraged by the challenging content throughout the conference and the energy and level of engagement that maintained throughout. I agree that we have work to do, as practitioners and as an organization, to advance our field. This will require clarity in order to focus our efforts toward this goal.
    To reach clarity, we must be willing to be vulnerable in exercising self-reflection to understand how we can be and do better, as practitioners and as an organization. Thomas Griffin and Jon Lee have enlightened us to the term "liminality" in recent conferences. To quote Jon’s keynote, "The liminal represents people in a state of vulnerability, and vulnerability is the required first ingredient for transition. It’s the price of admission for growth: to first be exposed, humbled, or knocked off-center in some way. Anyone that attempts to enter into the liminal space without this ticket will gain nothing in the end and may cause harm through their inevitable defensiveness, skepticism, and resistance.”
    Although it will come with discomfort, I hope that we can embrace it and am optimistic, given our current leadership, management team and dedicated volunteers, that we are in a liminal state, a transitional state, that will take us in a positive direction.

  2. Marcia Riley - you put what I’ve been thinking so much more eloquently than I could, so I’ll just say ditto and thank you to you and to Nick for writing the post

  3. Tom, Nick, Marcia and Ruthy, I am hoping that all OOs will find this thread and add to it in response to the poignant challenges presented to us by Jon and by all our IOA keynoters. (And: Thank you Tom for providing this forum.) May I add to Nick's headline: (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.)/// Like Nick, I heard some discussions at the Conference about practice that appears outside the IOA Standards of Practice. We need also some consensus about OO Functions ...that is, what OOs Do..and Do Not Do. Much of the antipathy to OOs comes from misunderstandings that OOs may advocate, or arbitrate, or otherwise make management decisions and policy. I believe that if we want shield laws, protection from mandatory reporting, and maintaining our reporting structures to the highest possible level of our organizations,....and the further spread of OOs, we need an articulated consensus about the SoPs and Functions of Organizational Ombuds, and Guidelines about accountability for how we function.//s// mary rowe

  4. From Riley Barrar: As a practicing external ombuds and former organizational ombuds, I greatly enjoyed the 2019 IOA conference. As IOA considers exploring a conversation about standards of practice, I thought it may be helpful to share a robust recent study and accompanying recommendations in the federal sector which included dialogue on standards of practice and a legal analysis. Please see the executive summary, full study, and accompanying ACUS recommendations at https://www.acus.gov/report/ombudsman-federal-agencies-final-report-2016. The following segment is quoted from the Coalition of Federal Ombudsman (COFO) Endorsement and Practice Commentary which you can locate at https://federalombuds.ed.gov/s/standards.

    “On December 14, 2016, the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS), a federal agency dedicated to improving federal administrative process, adopted Recommendation 2016-5, ‘The Use of Ombuds in Federal Agencies’. ACUS urged those agencies that already have ombuds or are contemplating creating ombuds offices to align their office standards and practices with those included in Recommendation 2016-5. The Coalition of Federal Ombudsman (COFO) strongly supports this recommendation.”

    “As COFO is the principal interagency forum providing collaboration, advice, and guidance on federal ombuds standards, skills development, program development, and effectiveness, this document elaborates on a subset of the 16 approved recommendations within ACUS Recommendation 2016-5. It focuses on providing additional clarity and specific examples for the practical application of the three core standards (independence, confidentiality, and impartiality) and the three common characteristics (informality, a commitment to fairness, and credible process) of an ombuds function within the federal sector.”

  5. This is later than I'd hoped to chime in on this - my apologies for that. But I wanted to piggyback on Riley's post by pointing out that, in the federal space, we deal with these kinds of challenges regularly and do so in a community comprising practitioners from a variety of ombuds models. The ACUS study and recommendation were a nice helping hand in that regard, in that they presented recommendations that made sense for all models of practice and helped define the broader ombuds profession by commonality rather than difference.

    One lesson I personally have taken away from working as both an organizational and external federal ombuds is that our stakeholders - the communities we serve - care that we practice not only to the standards we promise, but even more to what they understand as ethical. For the most part, they do not care (and often do not understand) the striations between the various models of practice - if they come into contact with something called "ombuds" anywhere, no matter the model (or even if it isn't really an ombuds), it will strongly color their perspective on the entire profession. People mostly don't know what we are, so all of us - organizational, classical, advocate, programmatic, etc. - take a hit when _any_ of us don't practice to standards or basic ethics.

    So it is imperative for ombuds to self-police, but it is usually difficult for small organizations like IOA to do so. Cliques form, “in” and “out” crowds are created. That’s normal and probably inevitable. Luckily, there is more than one ombuds organization out there, and while these organizations may represent slightly different practice models, the ACUS experience has shown us here in the federal space that the various ombuds models share far more in common - in terms of practice standards, ethics, and core values - than deviation. Most importantly, these organizations all share a common interest in protecting and advancing the profession in the eyes of our most important audience – our stakeholders. Perhaps it's time to explore taking advantage of that by having them help provide oversight for each other.