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, universities, 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 leveled against businesses and other organizations, including the government.
  • Depending on the jurisdiction, an ombudsman's decision may or may not be legally binding.
  • However, even if not binding, the decision typically carries considerable weight.
  • In the U.S., members of Congress serve as ombudsmen.
  • The processing time for a complaint can be between 90 days and nine months, depending on the type and complexity of the complaint.

How an Ombudsman Works

An ombudsman typically has a broad mandate that allows them to address overarching concerns in the public, and sometimes the private, sector. That said, 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.

An ombudsman is free for consumers to use and is typically paid via levies and case fees.

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. Ombudsmen may focus exclusively on and deal with complaints regarding a particular organization or public office, or they may have wider ranges.

Depending on the jurisdiction, an ombudsman's decision may or may not be legally binding. However, even if not binding, the decision typically carries considerable weight.

Types of Ombudsmen

While the general duty of the ombudsman is the same, the types of grievances they handle and resolution services they provide may differ according to their appointment. Ombudsmen can be found in organizations, governments, schools, and other institutions.

Industry Ombudsman

An industry ombudsman, such as a telecommunications or insurance ombudsman, may deal with consumer complaints about unfair treatment the consumer received from a 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.

Organizational Ombudsman

A large public entity or other organization may have its own ombudsman—an example being the California Department of Health Care Services. 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.

Classical Ombudsman

Ombudsmen duties may be more wide-ranging nationally. For example, 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.

While an ombudsman is usually publicly appointed, they will typically have a large degree of independence and autonomy in fulfilling their function. This is to enable the official to act in a fair and impartial way to all parties involved in a complaint.

Advocate Ombudsman

An advocate ombudsman, just as the name suggests, advocates for people who have filed grievances or for those with whom the grievances concern. They can be found in the private or public sectors but are typically found championing for long-term care residents, the elderly, the underserved, and those who lack the capacity to advocate for themselves.

Media Ombudsman

Familiar to many is the media or news ombudsman who receives complaints about news reporting. The media ombudsman promotes accurate and transparent news reporting in an environment that fosters trust with the general public. Having a media ombudsman can help media outlets avoid lengthy and costly litigation involving false reporting and claims of defamation.

Media ombudsmen work with journalists, editors, and other media professionals to investigate and respond to complaints. Often, to promote transparency in operations, they publish their response to a broader audience.

Advantages and Disadvantages of an Ombudsman

Ombudsmen provide a channel for people to submit complaints against institutions (e.g., governments, businesses, organizations, news outlets, and schools) without influence from the complainee. They conduct fair and unbiased investigations at no cost to the complainant, providing resolutions or mediation services.

Where corruption is present, ombudsmen can investigate, expose, and help correct illegal behaviors. Ombudsmen help prevent governments from abusing their power, such as imposing unfair laws and exerting controls over their citizens without constraints. They also help restore confidence in the system and its ability to fairly address issues.

In addition to investigating and providing resolutions, ombudsmen serve as a source of information about policies and procedures. Serving as an unbiased party, they are able to promote communication between parties and clarify issues that stifle progress.

On the other hand, an ombudsman offers no benefit when their work produces lackluster or no results. A lack of dedication and service erodes the trust of the complainant and the audience they are appointed to serve.

If the claim is complex, receiving a quick resolution is unlikely. Investigations take time and may require additional resources. Despite the recommendation or resolution, the institution has the final say on how to resolve the issue.

Unlike lawyers, ombudsmen are impartial—except in cases where they advocate for the rights of others. Some are familiar with or have legal training; however, they cannot provide legal advice. If the complainant disapproves of the resolution, they may pursue other actions, such as suing the institution. An ombudsman cannot, however, investigate a case after submitted to a court.

If legal action is later pursued for the same complaint, the ombudsman's suggested remedy can influence judicial decisions.

Ombudsman FAQs

What Does an Ombudsman Do?

An ombudsman is someone appointed to investigate complaints against an institution and seek resolutions to those complaints. Some have full authority to investigate and resolve issues, and some have limited capacity to only investigate and provide suggested resolutions to a governing authority or the institution subject to the complaint.

What Kind of Ombudsman Do I Need?

If seeking the services of an ombudsman, the type you need is dependent on the nature of your grievance and the institution which has aggrieved you. If the complainee is a member of an organization, seek an ombudsman dedicated to resolving issues for that organization and likewise for other entities.

If in the UK, Ireland; or British Crown Dependencies or Overseas Territories, the Ombudsman Association is a great starting point for finding an ombudsman for your particular situation. In the U.S., the United States Ombudsman Association provides a list of websites for public ombudsmen in the United States and parts of Canada.

How Long Does an Ombudsman Investigation Take?

Investigations conducted by ombudsmen vary. The length is determined by the type and complexity of the complaint, available resources to resolve the complaint, as well as other factors. If simple, it could be approximately 90 days.

If the complaint involves multiple parties or complicated processes, it could up to nine months. However, the ombudsman should communicate those expectations and keep in contact with you during the investigation to update you on the status or request any additional information supporting your claim.