December 31, 2019

11 Stories that Shaped the Ombuds Profession in the 2010's

Ten years ago, this blog posted a survey of the most important stories about the Organizational Ombuds field from 2000 to 2009. Many of those stories are echoed in this summary of the most recent decade and reflect improvements in the profession. 

Here they are, in no particular order:

Chuck Howard's Book Becomes the Definitive and Only Legal Handbook (2010)
In January 2010, the the American Bar Association released Charles Howard's The Organizational Ombudsman: Origins, Roles and Operations-A Legal Guide. It which was quickly hailed as the first comprehensive textbook on the profession. Over the subsequent years, Howard used his book as the centerpiece of presentations to a wide range of audiences. Meanwhile, Ombuds often bought two copies of the book: one for their own library and one for their organization's general counsel.

While IOA's Membership Stagnated, Participation in Regional and Affinity Groups Booms (2012 / 2018)

IOA's reported membership number in 2007 was "more than 700"; ten years later, in 2017, it was 696. Meanwhile, many Ombuds were organizing smaller groups to supplement their networking and professional development based on regional or industry affiliations. Some had an IOA connection, but many did not. In 2012, the 40th annual California Caucus of College and University Ombuds conference and the 10th Annual Summer Meeting of Academic Ombudspersons had record numbers of attendees. These groups continued to see robust enrollments through the decade. By 2018, the IOA had realized that it should support these groups that many Ombuds and in December published an evolving list.

ACCUO Remains a Vibrant Resource and Provocative Alternative to IOA (2012 / 2018)

In June 2012, the Association of Canadian College and University Ombudspersons endorsed its first Standards of Practice. Although the Standards are intended to serve as a guide for Canadian Ombuds offices in higher ed, they are an important reference for all Organizational Ombuds. ACCUO's Standards are remarkably different and comprise four tenets: Independence; Impartiality; Confidentiality; and Accessibility. The Standards also identify five functions and responsibilities of Organizational Ombuds: Information and Advice; Intervention (conflict resolution and investigation); Recommendations; Reporting; and Integrity of Service. In January 2018, ACCUO moved to a new website that is loaded with valuable information about the Ombuds field: job openings, up-coming conferences, tools for opening an office, articles about Ombuds, and a list of members.

American Universities Never Develop a Consistent Standard for Ombuds' Confidentiality (2014)

After the U.S. Department of Education muddied the waters regarding the rules for handling Title IX complaints in 2012, Ombuds were on edge. In 2013, several universities reaffirmed their Ombuds' confidentiality and/or brought their Ombuds into the conversation about responding to sexual misconduct. The trend continued with some prominent schools endorsing Ombuds' confidentiality. On the other hand, many universities decided otherwise and mandated that Ombuds report instances of sexual misconduct.
In response, the IOA Board requested the Department of Education clarify its regulations. In a comment to a proposed rule, IOA requested that the final regulations permit colleges and universities to designate Ombuds as a “confidential resource” under Title IX and the Clery Act. It was only the second time that IOA formally provided input to a U.S. federal agency. Nonetheless, there remains significant differences in the confidentiality offered by university Ombuds in the U.S.

The ABA Emerges as Leading Voice for Ombuds (2014 / 2016 / 2017 / 2019)

In 2001, the American Bar Association published its own standards for Ombuds offices, heightening the skepticism that many Ombuds had of lawyers in general. The relationship began to turn early in the decade and, in December 2014, the ABA's Section of Dispute Resolution Section Ombuds Committee outlined an ambitious vision of creating an information packet to promote Ombuds for law firms, their clients, law schools, and other organizations.
The Section on Dispute Resolution gave Ombuds a big marketing push in 2016. In September, the ABA Dispute Resolution Law School Task Force completed its year-long project of a free, downloadable PowerPoint presentation about all types of Ombuds for law school instructors. The Ombuds Committee collaborated on multiple special issues of Dispute Resolution Magazine devoted to the Ombuds field.
At its annual meeting in August 2017, the ABA adopted a resolution that endorsed Ombuds programs that follow generally recognized standards of practice. The ABA resolution was another important step toward recognition by lawyers.
In 2018, the ABA Ombuds Committee boldly declared the second Thursday of October as "Ombuds Day." In 2019, just its second year, participation surged and included Ombuds of all types and around the world. All of the major Ombuds professional associations (IOA, IOI, USOA, COFO, and ENOHE) marked the day. Official proclamations were issued by many American states and cities. And dozens of Ombuds offices sponsored educational and outreach events. It's a remarkable trajectory that bodes well.

ENOHE Boosts Relevance Through New Initiatives (2015 / 2019)

In 2015 (its twelfth year as an organization), the European Network of Ombudsmen in Higher Education, lead by Josef Leidenfrost, took two bold steps to assert its relevance. During its largest conference in May 2015, ENOHE members adopted a motion endorsing "the cardinal principles of operational independence of university ombudsmen and their legitimate protection from arbitrary dismissal." Later in the year, the organization helped survey campus Ombuds about the diversity of their practice.
At ENOHE's annual meeting in June 2019, representatives from five networks of Ombuds in higher education in Spain, Portugal, Canada, Latin America, and Europe agreed to increase joint cooperation. The León Declaration will unify the efforts of Conferencia Estatal de Defensores Universitarios; Rede National de Provedores do Estudante do Ensino Superior; Red Iberoamericana de Defensorías Universitarias; ACCUO; and ENOHE. This could mark the start of a strong international counterpart to IOA, at least for college and university Ombuds.

Ombuds Reach a Tipping Point in Norwegian Universities (2015 / 2018)
The number of Ombuds programs in Norway and Sweden began to grow in 2015 when new programs opened at six campuses. A regional meeting in September became an annual event. In 2018, the Norwegian legislature finalized a rule requiring Student Ombuds programs all universities. Most universities in Norway had an Ombuds (Studentombud) ahead of the legal mandate.

Ombuds Grow Throughout the United Nations System (2016 / 2018)

Johnston Barkat, who served as the UN's Ombudsman from 2008 to 2018, oversaw the creation of an IOA-compliant program for UN funds and programs. The program was so successful that a report published by an independent oversight body in June 2016 recommended a more robust Ombuds program throughout the United Nations system. The report tacitly acknowledged the benefits of an Ombuds program for diverse, multinational, and high profile organizations. Subsequently, many new Ombuds were hired to lead programs in other UN agencies. The growth of UN Ombuds then legitimized Organizational Ombuds internationally. In June 2018, Shireen L. Dodson began a five-year term as the next UN Ombudsman.

COFO Begins to Wields its Influence in the Federal Sector (2016)

Although largely retrained by regulations that prohibit lobbying by federal employees, COFO became a leading voice on the issue of Ombuds. In May 2016, the organization gave advice to the National Archives on the disposition of theNational Security Administration's Ombuds documents. In July, COFO sent a letter to the Department of Education regarding the categorization of university Ombuds as mandatory reporters under the Clery Act.

COFO members also provided input to the Administrative Conference of the U.S. during its year-long study of Ombuds in the federal sector. ACUS concluded that Ombuds (Classical and Organizational, internal and external) provided significant benefits to government agencies and the public. ACUS recommended more Ombuds and adherence to standards promulgated by IOA and the U.S. Ombudsman Association.

Special Interest Groups Begin Appointing Ombuds to Protect and Serve Members (2017 / 2018 / 2019)

By the middle of the decade, professional associations and other special interest groups had started creating Ombuds programs to support and protect members who may not have any other formal mechanism to resolve conflicts. In many cases, the Ombuds are appointed to address a history of gender discrimination and sexual harassment that can occur at conferences.
In 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said that institutions should have Ombuds to supplement Title IX programs. In 2019 NASEM created an Action Collaborative to focus these efforts and IOA was an early signatory. This prompted another increase in new Ombuds programs by professional and associations.

New Management and Executive Director Promise a Revitalized IOA (2018 / 2019)
For most of its history, IOA (and its predecessor organizations) were staffed and lead by volunteers assisted by a management company. This arrangement was far from perfect for many reasons. Fortunately, the dynamic changed late in the decade. In November 2018, IOA announced the selection of SBI Association Management as its new administrative partner. SBI quickly revamped IOA's website and implemented better administrative processes. With guidance by SBI, IOA issued the first of two press releases in 2019. Then, in August 2019, IOA named Chuck Howard as its first Executive Director. Almost immediately, he wrote his first advocacy piece. Many Ombuds see this change as the beginning of a new chapter for IOA and the Ombuds profession.

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  1. Tom, this is just terrific. Kudos. I would just add one trend that perhaps you considered but perhaps not, and that is the rise of conflict coaching as a key tool for Ombuds. Perhaps others disagree with me on this, and I am admittedly fairly new to the profession, but from my vantage point I've seen a tremendous upward trend on the coaching side of things over the last ten years. Happy New Year!

    1. Wow-- I kind of took that for granted! Show's how new I am. It kind of makes sense within the Organizational Ombuds versus Classical Ombuds development model, though.

  2. A couple other stories that almost made the cut: Senator Grassley Bullies the Red Cross Over its Ombuds Office; Ombuds at ETH Zurich Prompt Ouster of Prominent Professor; and U.S. Med School Ombuds Reach a Tipping Point.