A community ombudsperson is a designated neutral or impartial dispute resolution practitioner whose major function is to provide confidential and informal assistance to constituents of the community. An ombudsman should be a person of recognized knowledge, judgment, objectivity, and integrity. Serving as a designated neutral, the ombudsperson is neither an advocate for any individual nor the organization represented by the Board, event leads, etc., but rather, an independent advocate for fairness who acts as a source of information and referral, and aids in answering individual’s questions, and assists in the prevention or resolution of problems, complaints or issues brought to him/her by individuals or groups. In considering any given instance or concern, the rights of all parties that might be involved are taken into account.
An ombudsperson acts as independently as possible of all other offices and avoids conflict of interest, external control and either the reality or appearance of being compromised.
An ombudsperson is readily accessible to all members of the constituent community, promotes timely solutions to problems and avoids either the reality or appearance of bias toward any individual or group.
An ombudsperson hears and investigates complaints objectively. Objectivity includes impartial attention to all available perspectives on an issue.
An ombudsperson does not disclose and is not required to disclose any information provided in confidence, except to address an imminent risk of serious harm. Records pertaining to a complaint, inquiry, or investigation are confidential and not subject to disclosure outside the ombudsperson’s office. An ombudsperson does not reveal the identity of a complainant without that person’s express consent. An ombudsperson may, however, at the ombudsperson’s discretion, disclose non-confidential information and may disclose confidential information so long as doing so does not reveal its source. An ombudsperson should discuss any exceptions to the ombudsperson‘s maintaining confidentiality with the source of the information. However, if an individual speaks about intending serious harm to himself or herself or others, or if the complainant confesses to serious misconduct or a crime, an ombudsperson must use personal discretion in determining whether or not this information is carried forward. Discretion is likewise required in regard to matters governed by state and federal law. When people contact the ombudsman for assistance, they should be apprised of these exceptions to absolute confidentiality.
An ombudsperson is guided by a concern for and commitment to justice. Justice requires that individual interests be carefully balanced with the consideration of the good of the larger community. An ombudsperson’s commitment to justice includes the understanding of power, identification of the use and misuse of power and authority, and recognition of the need for access to power by the members of the community.
An ombudsman should attempt to resolve problems or disputes by enlisting the actions of the individual or organization closest to the problem. In addition, the ombudsman does to necessarily presume to “know the answer to the problem” but rather helps or enables the one closest to the problem to affect the solution. Through this approach the least disruptive and least costly solution is usually achieved. Leads/Board members or others should only be contacted when this “lowest level” approach is ineffective.
The ombudsmen must establish a reputation as a consensus-builder and facilitator. When this is accomplished, program changes will be viewed as less threatening. A consensus-builder is not likely to be viewed as turf-conscious or threatening. Consensus building should also be used as a day-to-day method for informing and working with others to effect systemic change.
An ombudsperson must have outstanding communication skills. It is imperative that the ombudsperson have excellent problem-solving skills and be able to gather information, analyze it and as necessary, help the inquirer develop appropriate options and actions.
An ombudsperson must be aware of how all decisions might impact the inquirer, as well as other community members. An ombudsperson must know how to proceed with issues, and help the inquirer assess who should be involved and at what stage. An ombudsperson endeavors first of all to do no harm.
An essential element of the ombudsperson’s role is that of facilitating the resolution of conflict between parties. An ombudsperson needs strong interpersonal skills, including the ability to deal with emotionally charged situations. It is important that the ombudsperson have a thorough understanding of what leads to conflict, the nature of conflict, and methods for resolution. The skills used to assist inquirers resolve their conflicts include: helping people learn how to deal with the matter directly if they wish to do this, serving as a communication conduit between the parties (shuttle diplomacy), informally bringing the parties together, bringing them together through an informal mediation process, approaching the conflict generically (especially when the inquirer is afraid of retaliation), and influencing systems change which could obviate the individual problem. The ombudsperson must also have the ability to help the inquirer determine which conflict resolution method would be appropriate for the specific situation.
An ombudsperson must be knowledgeable about the community – its structure, culture, policies and practices. The ombudsperson must have excellent networking skills, understand and participate in collaboration with others and be able to establish and maintain broad contacts throughout the community.
The community’s expectation is to create an environment that values human differences. The ombudsperson must be sensitive to dealing with individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures. The ombudsperson must be open, objective, and must seek to understand issues from different perspectives. The ombudsperson should be innovative in developing options that are responsive to differing needs.
An ombudsperson should have a reputation for integrity and for dealing fairly, effectively and in a timely fashion with all constituents. An ombudsperson position is based on the offer of near absolute confidentiality. Therefore, the ombudsperson must keep information confidential and must use good judgment about when and how such information can be shared. An ombudsman should not be risk-averse and should understand that this position may, on occasion, challenge even the Board, event leads, etc. in an effort to foster fair and just practices.
Dispute Resolution/Consultation and Referral
Provide impartial and confidential consultation to members of the community who are aggrieved or concerned about an issue
Remain independent, neutral and impartial, and exercise good judgment
Assist inquirers in interpreting Board policies and procedures
Provide assistance to inquirers by clarifying issues and generating options for resolution
Facilitate the inquirer’s assessment of the pros and cons of possible options
If direct action by the ombudsperson may be an appropriate option, obtain the inquirer’s agreement and permission before proceeding
If necessary, and while maintaining confidentiality, conduct appropriate informal fact-finding in order to better understand an issue from all perspectives
Consult with Board members to develop cooperative strategies for complaint resolution
With the inquirer’s permission, consult with all parties to clarify and analyze problems, focus discussions, and develop a mutually-satisfactory process for resolution
When appropriate, facilitate group meetings, use shuttle diplomacy, or negotiation skills to facilitate communication among parties in conflict
Encourage flexible administrative practices to maximize the Board’s ability to meet the needs of all members of the community equitably
Whenever possible and appropriate, provide referrals to other resources
Policy Analysis and Feedback
Act as a liaison between individuals or groups and the community administrative structure (board, event lead, etc), serving as a communicator or informal facilitator, as appropriate
You can contact the SDCAP Ombuds at firstname.lastname@example.org