How to Create an Ombudsperson 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
  • perceived need by a stakeholder group
  • a knowledgeable decision maker or champion who understands and believes in the ombudsperson concept

Leaders at some institutions have been influenced by the role ombuds offices play at other institutions, helping to alleviate conflict on their campuses.

Getting Agreement for Establishing an Office

  • Typically, one person or a group such as a student association or someone in the administration 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 ombudsperson 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). The mandate of the Ombuds Office must specify who can use the services: staff, faculty and or students.

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 significant influence need to lead by example, endorsing the office. If any influential 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 an 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 suggestion 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 ombudsperson 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 ombudsperson 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 ombudsperson 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. It may be useful to contact ACCUO members with comparable enrollments aYou may wish to inquire from ACCUO members with comparable enrollments about their staffing levels.

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. 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 Ombudsperson, 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