What is an 'Ombudsman'

An ombudsman is an official, usually appointed by 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. Depending on 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.

BREAKING DOWN 'Ombudsman'

Ombudsmen are in place across a wide variety of countries and organizations within those countries. They may be appointed at 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. 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 of its students.)

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.

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

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