RESOURCES & TOOLS:
CREATING AN OMBUDS OFFICE
A Guide for the Institution or Champion
An Ombuds Office in any institution can only do its work if it is seen as credible. It follows that the process of deciding to have an office and the manner in which it is set up and staffed are critical first steps in ensuring that the office will be credible and thus a success for the communities it serves.
Institutions in the past have been motivated to establish ombuds offices by one or more of the following:
- a conflict on campus which key persons believe would have worked out better or been avoided if there had been an ombuds office (e.g., Concordia University)
- perceived need by a stakeholder group (e.g., The University of Western Ontario University Students' Council)
- a knowledgeable decision maker or champion who understands and believes in the ombudsman concept
Probably some institutions have been influenced by the fact that other institutions have ombuds offices. University and college presidents, vice-presidents, registrars, deans of students and so on do meet regularly, and trade war stories and institutional successes.
Getting Agreement for Establishing an Office
- Typically, one person or group takes the first step and consults with others about starting an ombuds office on campus.
- Consultation should include all the stakeholder groups, ie, faculty, staff and students.
- But before consultations even start, a proposal needs to be drafted. The proposal will state the key characteristics of the ombuds office (confidentiality, impartiality, independence). It may provide information about existing offices in similar institutions. The proposal may include statements from key people at other comparable institutions about the merits and benefits of their ombuds offices. The proposal need not be very long, and need not attempt to answer every question.
- The person or group putting the proposal forward should be well informed about what an ombudsman is. Inviting an ombudsperson from another institution to meet with decision makers or others is sometimes extremely helpful. ACCUO can provide contact information for likely speakers.
- In some instances, the institutional champion attends an ACCUO Conference to learn more about academic ombuds before developing the proposal.
- The initial proposal should make clear who the users of the proposed Ombuds Office will be and the scope of oversight (that is, what issues can be brought to the Ombuds Office).
Institutions have different cultures. Consultations will not be exactly the same everywhere. The time is not always right. Why should your institution spend the money now for an ombuds office? Why spend on this, rather than hiring more instructors or buying new equipment?
- An Ombuds Office helps address grievances. Those with a sense of grievance against the institution are often less productive as staff or faculty members, less likely to succeed as students, and less likely to contribute as alumni;
- An Ombuds Office can help prevent conflicts from escalating. Conflicts cost time and resources;
- An Ombuds Office is tangible proof that the institution values fairness and values the members of the institutional community as individuals.
Ideally, the establishment of an ombuds office should be welcomed by every major group in the institutional community. In particular, the group or groups with real power need to lead by example, endorsing the office. If any powerful group remains opposed, it may be better to simply try to keep the lines of communication open and wait for a better time to create the office. Or it may be possible to work around the group in question.
Initial Terms of Reference
Most institutions like to have terms of reference in place before hiring for their new ombuds office. It is normal to know what the job is before you fill it. There are three main approaches taken in creating terms of reference:
The first way has the advantage of involving many members of the community, thus promoting buy-in. But ideally, the second and third options work best for the Office. A committee can be given the task of approving the document resulting from either of the second or third approaches.
Whatever terms of reference are adopted, they should contain a clause mandating review and possible amendment after a trial period.
Independence of the Office
Independence is achieved for our provincial and specialist ombudsman through the legislation governing their offices. Such offices are typically physically separate from the bodies they oversee; they are adequately funded; they report to the legislature (preferably) or a minister; they do their own hiring and manage their own budgets. The incumbent ombudsman is protected by contract and can normally only be fired for cause, not an easy thing to do. Moreover, the terms of reference for government ombudsman protect them from having to testify before the courts.
Independence is closely allied to impartiality. Only an independent ombudsperson can be seen to be truly impartial.
University and college ombuds offices, or corporate ombuds offices, need to strive to be independent, too. But they do not usually have a location apart from the areas they oversee, and their budget is probably part of the budget of a unit. So how can they achieve independence?
- Locate the office in such a way that it appears to be independent. Avoid a location which makes the office appear to be part of another office.
- Avoid sharing staff with other services.
- Fund the office collaboratively or jointly to enhance the appearance of independence: for example, half the funding might come from college or university operating funds, half from student fees.
- Funding should be adequate, so that the Ombuds Office can make most of its own decisions without having to seek permission. For example, if the Ombuds Office needs to get legal advice, it ought to be able to do so. Similarly, the Ombudsperson ought to be able to determine his or her appropriate professional development.
- Ensure that the reporting structure does not undermine the credibility of the office. Reporting to a representative or advisory committee may work. In some instances, reporting is to the Board of Governors or to the President. Reporting relationships do not extend to reporting on individual cases - they are for administrative purposes only.
- Make independence and the ombuds office powers explicit in the terms of reference. The ombudsperson needs to have ready access to information needed to do the job. That includes being able to look at files and being able to discuss matters with people.
How Many Staff?
Most college and university offices begin small, with one or two staff, or even a part-time person. Consider the enrollment at the college or university to be served by the new office. You may wish to inquire from ACCUO members with comparable enrollments about their level of staffing.
Bear in mind the work of establishing an office: your new Ombudsperson will not simply sit in an office, waiting for phone calls, drop-ins and emails. He or she will create promotional materials - probably a brochure, a poster, a website, other materials. He or she will probably speak to various groups or units about the service. And he or she will need to make appointments with some of the key people on campus, such as the president of the students' council; the registrar; deans; chairs; the head of the student counselling service; union presidents; and so on., in order to introduce him or herself and the office.
How to Hire?
Institutional policies are likely to dictate how the first Ombudsperson is hired for a new college or university Ombuds Office. However it is done, it is important to do it in a way that is seen to be fair. Fairness, after all, is the hallmark of the Ombudsman, as is fairness which any college or university hopes to achieve by establishing an office.
Hire internally? There are advantages to internal hiring. The new hire already knows the institution, at least to some extent. And the individual may also have the respect of the community. Université Laval began its ombuds office by hiring highly respected senior faculty members.
Hire externally? An external hire will learn the institution as ombudsperson – so no conflict with any other institutional role, past or present. This can help the office be seen to be independent and impartial.
A Guide for the Newly Hired Ombuds - ACCUO's Ombuds Toolkit