What Is an Ombudsman?

An ombudsman is an official, usually appointed by the government, who investigates complaints (usually lodged by private citizens) against businesses, financial institutions, or government departments or other public entities, and attempts to resolve the conflicts or concerns raised, either by mediation or by making recommendations.

Ombudsmen may be called by different names in some countries, including titles such as a public advocate or national defender.

Key Takeaways

  • An ombudsman investigates complaints against businesses and other organizations, including the government.
  • Ombudsmen's decisions are not always legally binding.
  • In the U.S. members of Congress serve as ombudsmen.

How an Ombudsman Works

Depending on the jurisdiction, an ombudsman's decision may or may not be legally binding. Even if not binding, the decision typically carries considerable weight. When appointed, the ombudsman is typically paid via levies and case fees. An ombudsman typically has a broad mandate that allows him or her to address overarching concerns in the public, and sometimes the private, sector.

However, sometimes an ombudsman’s mandate extends over only a specific sector of society—for example, a children’s ombudsman may be tasked with protecting the rights of the young people of a nation, while in Belgium, the various linguistic and regional communities have their own ombudsmen. In the United States, members of the United States Congress serve as ombudsmen at the national level, representing the interests of their constituents and maintaining staff tasked with advocating for constituents faced with administrative difficulties, especially those caused by maladministration.

Ombudsmen are in place across a wide variety of countries and organizations within those countries. They may be appointed at a national or local level, and are often found within large organizations too. They may focus exclusively on and deal with complaints regarding a particular organization or public office, or they may have wider ranges.

For example, an industry ombudsman such as a consumer or insurance ombudsman may deal with consumer complaints about unfair treatment the consumer has received from a private company that operates within that industry. Often—and especially at the government level—an ombudsman will seek to identify systemic issues that can lead to widespread rights violations or poor quality of service to the public by the government or institution in question.

A large public entity or other organization may have its own ombudsman. (For example, the California Department of Health Care Services has its own ombudsman.) Depending on the appointment, an ombudsman may investigate specific complaints about the services or other interaction a consumer has had with the entity concerned; an ombudsman within an organization may also have a primary function of dealing with internal issues (such as complaints by employees, or, if an educational institution, complaints by its students).

Special Considerations

Ombudsman duties may be more wide-ranging nationally. As an example of this, some countries have ombudsmen in place to deal with issues such as corruption or abuses of power by public officials. Furthermore, some countries have ombudsmen whose main function is to protect human rights within those countries.

Although an ombudsman is usually publicly appointed, he or she will typically have a large degree of independence in fulfilling his or her function. This is to enable the official to act in a fair and impartial way to all parties involved in a complaint.