Setting-up and operating an ombuds office in a Canadian postsecondary institution.
ACCUO’s Ombuds Toolkit is an information package for ombudspersons and for stakeholders wanting to create an ombuds office in a Canadian postsecondary institution. It briefly covers most frequently asked questions.
Practice varies among Canadian postsecondary institutions’ ombudspersons who develop their offices to fit the needs, organizational culture, strategic goals and values of the particular institutional community they serve.
For documents that define ombuds practice in Canadian postsecondary institutions, see ACCUO’s Standards of Practice and the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman’s Statement of Ethical Principles.
How can ACCUO assist you in developing your ombuds office? ACCUO provides:
- information on ombuds principles, standards and best practices
- presentations and talks on ombuds offices
- consultation for ombudspersons or other stakeholders on starting an office, reviewing terms of reference, transitioning between ombudspersons, etc.
- mentoring for new ombudspersons.
What is the origin of the concept of ombudsman/ombudsperson?
Ombudsman is a Swedish word meaning “agent” or “commissioner”. The concept is centuries old, dating back to ancient Germanic tribes (Kircheiner, 1983). Research has identified other precursors of the ombudsman in several cultures. The birth of the modern ombudsman concept occurred in Sweden in 1809 when the parliament created a neutral “agent of the folk or people”, independent of the government, to represent the citizenry who had disputes with the government.
The term ombudsman was used historically and is still used internationally. In English, variants of the term include ombudsperson and ombuds. In other languages, it has also been translated as protector or mediator, or, for example in Spanish, defensor. In Quebec, the term ombudsman is used as well as protecteur. In this document, ACCUO uses the terms ombudsperson and ombuds offices, except in specific historical references.
What is the origin of the ombudsperson in Canada and North America?
The concept of ombudsman came to North America in 1962 with the first unsuccessful bills asking for the creation of a Canadian federal ombudsman. The first ombudsman position in an academic setting was created by students at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada in 1965; the first Canadian provincial ombudsman was established in Alberta in 1967. From there, ombuds offices spread in Canada and the USA, first in government and in academia (late 60’s – 70’s), and later also in the corporate sector (late 70’s – 80’s). By the 1990’s, ombuds offices were common in the public, private and non-profit sectors.
In what settings do ombuds offices exist today in Canada?
There are now ombuds offices in government, academia and other public, private and not-for-profit sectors. In Canada, there are ombuds offices in nine provinces (all except Prince Edward Island), two territories (Yukon and Nunavut), and over thirty postsecondary institutions. Ombuds functions also exist in quasi-governmental organizations (e.g. Quebec Hydro, WorkSafe BC), in Crown corporations (e.g. Canada Post), at the federal level in specialized areas (e.g. prisons), in the not-for-profit sector (e.g. hospitals, long-term care facilities), and in the corporate sector (e.g. banks, newspapers).
What is an ombudsperson?
An ombudsperson is an independent voice for fairness ACCUO’s Standards of Practice describe the ombudsperson in a Canadian postsecondary institution:
“With a focus on fairness, equity and respect, the ombudsperson builds capacity to help the institution be accountable to its own value and mission statements. In working with individuals, the ombudsperson facilitates fair resolutions that build trust and fortify the relationship between individual and institution.”
Ombuds offices are founded on the following principles and characteristics: independence, impartiality, confidentiality, accessibility; the provision of information and advice (e.g. help understanding rights and responsibilities, help analyzing or framing issues, coaching); the ability to intervene (e.g. problem-solve, inquire, investigate); the ability to makerecommendations and a commitment to accountability, fairness and constructive change.
The ombudsperson provides information, guidance and mechanisms for the effective and fair resolution of grievances and disputes. The effectiveness of the ombudsperson rests on an ability to form an independent opinion and to influence positive change.
Are there different types of ombudspersons?
The profession typically identifies three different types of ombuds mandates which the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman (FCO) endorsed. They are often called “legislative” or “classical” (e.g. provincial ombudspersons established by legislation to handle complaints from citizens); “institutional”, “executive” or “hybrid” (e.g. ombudspersons in colleges, universities, banks or utilities, responding to concerns from members of the institutional community or its customers); and “organizational” or “workplace” (e.g. employee ombudspersons in the private sector and in some federal agencies).
Why would a postsecondary institution create an ombuds office?
The creation of an ombuds office is a commitment to developing community around shared values of fairness, equity and respect. This is especially relevant when postsecondary institutions embrace diversity, collaboration and global connections as defining values and strategic goals.
Ombuds scholar Stanley Anderson described [ombudsmen] as “humanizers” who help “restore the dignity of the individual” (1969, p. 72) and “give voice to collective conscience” (idem, p. 3). He pointed out that “the ombudsman method of persuasion is eminently appropriate” in educational institutions because it fosters “an environment conducive to mutual learning by stimulating effective communication” (1980).
The ombuds office provides accessible and independent mechanisms for addressing disputes or complaints respectfully and constructively. Through its provision of information, education, problem-solving interventions, investigations and recommendations, an ombuds office helps to address grievances fairly, assists in resolving conflict before it escalates and provides a feedback loop for the pro-active improvement of policies, procedures and practices on campus.
Attention to relational, procedural and substantive fairness builds trust between individuals and the institution. An important rationale for establishing an office is the ability of the ombudsperson to analyze issues with the goal of making recommendations for systemic improvements.
How do ombuds offices in postsecondary institutions operate in Canada?
In Canadian postsecondary institutions, ombuds practice combines problem-solving and investigative approaches; in line with the academic institution’s mission, the ombuds office is also a resource for education and coaching, building capacity for greater fairness, equity and respect within the institution.
Ombuds activities include providing information and referrals; coaching and advising people with complaints or concerns; problem-solving and mediating; investigating and making recommendations; publishing annual and special reports; providing workshops for members of the campus community (e.g. respectful communication, effective dispute resolution, how to make decisions fairly, etc.).
How does the ombuds office relate and contribute to other complaint handling processes on campus?
An ombuds office is complementary to, and independent of, existing institutional governance, grievance and appeal processes. The ombudsperson is neither an advocate for the person with a complaint, nor an apologist for the institution. The ombudsperson does not make decisions for the institution or the students’ societies, and does not arbitrate disputes.
The ombudsperson contributes to institutional fairness and accountability by providing:
- guidance and referrals to existing processes
- problem-solving options at various stages
- alternate recourses leading to possible recommendations once other channels have been exhausted.
By providing information and advice, the ombudsperson makes the institution’s way of operating clearer and more accessible. Through coaching and education, the ombudsperson helps members of the campus community present their inquiries and complaints more effectively and expeditiously, and make decisions more fairly. Through interventions and recommendations, the ombudsperson also helps to rectify individual situations and to identify systemic areas for improvement.
What are the steps in creating an ombuds office?
The process includes gathering information about the purpose, structure and benefits of an ombuds office, consultation with stakeholders (e.g. students, administrators, faculty, unions), and the development of a proposal. After appropriate consultation, the proposal should include:
- a description of the principles and characteristics of an ombuds office
- a proposed reporting and funding structure for the office
- the office mandate and jurisdiction [including population(s) served]
- the procedure for hiring or appointing the ombudsperson
- the process for office evaluation / accountability.
See Creating an Ombuds office: A Guide for the Institution or Champion for a brief discussion of these steps.
Detailed terms of reference and office policy can be further developed once the first ombudsperson is hired or appointed, as part of the work of the office. See also: Developing Terms of Reference for the Ombuds: Sample of Clauses from Canadian College and University Ombuds Offices. The ACCUO executive and ACCUO members are available to provide guidance and information.
Where does the ombudsperson report to?
The ombuds office must be structured to function independently of the line of authority in the postsecondary institution and students’ societies. Depending on the funding structure (e.g. see below for institutional funding or joint-funding arrangements), the office can report directly to the governing body of the institution, or to the governing bodies of both the institution and the students’ societies (e.g. Board of Governors, Student Board). Other arrangements include reporting to the President or Chancellor of the institution, or to an advisory committee with representatives of major stakeholders on campus.
The ombudsperson reports on office operations and case statistics. The ombudsperson may seek input on awareness-building strategies, on matters related to the evaluation of ombuds services, on office location, etc. However, individual files remain confidential to the ombuds office; they are not accessible to the individual, board or committee that the ombuds reports to. Ombudspersons also report publicly on their operations through an annual report published on their website.
How are ombuds offices at postsecondary institutions funded?
Ombuds offices in Canadian postsecondary institutions tend to fall into two categories regarding funding: offices funded solely by the institution (college or university); offices jointly funded by the institution and by the students. Student funding may come from the students’ society or directly by student levy after a referendum. These offices may serve all constituencies (e.g. students, staff, faculty, other), or their mandate may focus on particular groups (e.g. students or staff or faculty). A few ombuds positions are funded solely by student fees.
Adequate funding from the institution ensures that the office is structured at the appropriate administrative level for credibility, effectiveness and independence. Joint funding also provides the office with clear commitment and collaboration from stakeholders and is a reminder of the impartiality of the office.
What does the funding include?
Funding must be adequate to support the operation of the office and ensure its credibility and effectiveness. Apart from salary and benefits for the ombuds and any staff, office space, equipment and supplies, the funding should also provide for advertising, professional development and conferences, and membership in ombuds and other professional organizations. Provision should also be made for the office to obtain independent legal advice when necessary.
Why are professional development and conferences important for ombudspersons?
An ombudsperson may be a specialist in one area (e.g. administration, conflict resolution, law, counseling, etc.). Ombudspersons are also generalists who need to remain current in a variety of fields and topics (e.g. human rights, employment, administrative justice, etc.).
Professional development and conferences allow practicing ombudspersons to continue to develop competence, relevance and effectiveness, and to identify best practices across institutions. ACCUO offers regular regional and national meetings and conferences. For other ombuds-specific training opportunities, see in particular the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman.
Why is membership in ombuds organizations important?
The need to maintain confidentiality limits the ability of ombudspersons to discuss approaches with non-ombudspersons. Ombuds organizations provide a forum for networking and discussions of best practices; they can provide guidance and mentoring for members, as well as an opportunity to work on tools that benefit all ombuds offices and the postsecondary institutions’ communities they serve. This is also important if we consider the fact that many postsecondary institutions’ ombuds offices are one-person or small offices.
Who will be served by the office?
An ombuds office is a resource for the whole campus community because it informs, educates and provides systemic feedback. However, the mandate and terms of reference for the office need to identify the populations that the office may accept inquiries or complaints from, for example: students, staff, faculty, others. Some offices are mandated to serve all groups on campus, while others are restricted to receiving complaints from a particular population (e.g. student or employees or faculty only).
How much staffing is required?
Postsecondary institutions’ ombuds offices vary from one or two, to three or more staff, including: the ombudsperson and additional staff with varying designations. It is helpful to contact ombuds offices at postsecondary institutions of a similar size or a similar mandate to determine appropriate staffing levels.
Where should the office be located?
The office should be independent of other offices (e.g. no sharing of office space, staff or storage space). It should provide an accessible and confidential settings.
How to develop terms of reference?
Terms of reference (ToRs) are an essential tool for determining the office’s jurisdiction, reporting and funding structure and for clarifying the implementation of ombuds essential principles and characteristics such as independence, impartiality, confidentiality, access to all decision-makers, information and files, investigative powers, record keeping, etc.
Some of this information (e.g. whether the position is a term or a permanent position) must be determined prior to hiring or appointing the first ombudsperson. At that stage, it may be sufficient to establish a brief ToR document covering essential principles and characteristics, mandate/jurisdiction, funding and reporting structure. ACCUO’s Standards of Practice and FCO’s Statement of Ethical Principles identify the elements that are essential to ombuds practice.
Detailed ToRs can be further developed once the first ombudsperson is hired or appointed, in consultation with stakeholders as part of the first year of office. It is also important to allow for periodic review and updating of the ToR document. See: Developing Terms of Reference for the Ombuds: Sample Clauses from Canadian College and University Ombuds Offices for guidance on developing the terms of reference. The ACCUO executive and ACCUO members are available to provide further guidance and information.
What skills and competencies do ombudspersons need?
Ombudspersons come from a variety of disciplines (e.g. social sciences, law, education, nursing, business, science, humanities) and many backgrounds or areas of specialization (e.g. communication, conflict and peace studies, criminology, administration, etc.).
A practicing ombudsperson must demonstrate strong reasoning and intelligence including emotional and social intelligence. The ombudsperson relies on a combination of related skills (written and verbal communication, capacity to acquire, analyze and manage large amounts of information, investigation, coaching, conflict resolution, facilitation), a wide knowledge base (principles of natural justice, the governance/administrative structure of a postsecondary institution, organizational culture and power structures, human rights and diversity issues, employment, privacy, etc.) and personal qualities (integrity, independence, judgment, an ability to work effectively with all members of the postsecondary institution’s community, assertiveness and diplomacy).
Ombudspersons are expected to take advantage of professional development opportunities to broaden and deepen their understanding in those areas. ACCUO offers regular regional and national meetings and conferences. For other ombuds-specific training opportunities, see in particular the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman..
How to recruit and hire or appoint the ombudsperson?
After consultations and decisions are made about the office’s mandate, jurisdiction, structure and funding, the institution develops the terms of reference and advertises the position (see What skills and competencies do ombudspersons need?) The institution will also have to decide whether this is a term or permanent position, whether to post it internally or externally, who to include on the hiring or appointment committee, how to communicate with stakeholders about the position, and how to orient the ombudsperson to the campus community.
What should the ombudsperson do in the first few weeks of office?
During the first few weeks, the ombudsperson should plan the following:
- Introductions/visits with students’ societies, staff, faculty and administration
- Connecting with other professional associations (ex. college or university ombudspersons) and subscribing to relevant professional journals (ex. Preventive Law Journal).
- Setting up space and systems
- Setting up a website and other publicity materials
Practicing ombudspersons have a responsibility to understand ombuds principles and standards, to uphold these principles and standards in their individual practice, and to enhance the operations and structure of their office. See ACCUO’s Standards of Practice and FCO’s Statement of Ethical Principles.
Practicing ombudspersons must also become familiar with the postsecondary institution’s organizational culture, strategic goals and values, and be able to articulate how the ombuds office contributes to an improved environment. They need to develop effective communication and referral links with the many parts of the postsecondary institution’s community.
How to set up physical space?
As the ombuds office offers independent and confidential services to the postsecondary institution’s community, the location should convey the message that it is not associated with any other service. A balance should be sought between having a location isolated enough to provide confidentiality and yet not too isolated to diminish accessibility or to compromise the safety of those using and working in the office.
There should be sufficient space for the office to be welcoming, and for personnel to be effective and productive. It is advisable where possible to have a reception area in which appointments can be made and administrative matters performed, and have a separate area reserved to meeting with the ombudsperson for privacy. In addition, the location of the office should be accessible to visitors with disabilities.
Visible signage is important; it allows visitors to the office to make their way without having to ask for directions.
Signage and posters inside the office are also important and should reflect respect of diversity.
How to set up systems?
The ombuds office offers confidential services; any and all systems to be used in the office must be handled and maintained in a confidential manner. The following examples of systems and procedures can be considered for the effective functioning of the office:
- filing/record-keeping system
- appointment schedules
- email correspondence
- phone messages
- data management system
- file destruction schedule and process
A useful tool is an intake form, containing pertinent information as determined by the ombudsperson. It helps to provide effective services as well as a source for data collection.
Access to case files and related information is restricted to ombuds office personnel. With respect to record-keeping, it will be important to consult the procedures, retention and destruction schedule determined by the institution relative to confidential records.
How to inform the campus community about the office?
Whether at the creation of a new ombuds office, at the appointment of a new ombudsperson, or during the mandate of the current ombudsperson, communication about the role of the ombudsperson is important. Given the ‘turnover’ cycle of the postsecondary institution’s setting, particularly its student body, it will be important for the office to continually determine ways to effectively inform the postsecondary institution’s community of the role of the ombudsperson and the availability of his or her services.
Funds must be available so that various means can be used to inform students, faculty and staff about the ombuds office, such as:
- brochures and pamphlets
- an office website with sufficient online information and resources
- bookmarks, pens, etc. or any item that can be distributed and serve as a reminder of the services available
- presentations at orientation sessions
- presentations or workshops on relevant topics
- online publication of the annual report
- use of campus media (radio, newspaper, social media, other)
- open house or other special event
- trips to all locations if the institution has several campuses.
Invitations and participation in the postsecondary institution’s activities can also be considered as long as these do not place the ombuds in a conflict of interest, and in so doing, compromise the integrity of the office.
Consider having an ‘open house’ – especially to advertise a new office or location, or a significant event – example: new staff, important anniversary dates.
To become knowledgeable about the campus and to develop effective referral and problem-solving mechanisms, the ombudsperson must also have regular contact with ‘key’ personnel and stakeholders on campus, be it the institution’s administration, faculty members, student groups, and support staff. Have available brochures and information for offices on campus or in the community that you may refer people to.
Explain your role and its main characteristics briefly with each new visitor or stakeholder, so they understand the parameters of the service (e.g. you are not a legal, advocacy or counseling office). Have a brochure or handout that people can take away to better understand your services and the characteristics of the ombuds office.
How is the ombudsperson independent?
Independence is a core ethical principle and standard in ombuds work. The ombuds office should be and be seen to be separate from all other offices, specifically, student government, faculty associations, staff unions and associations and institutional administration.
Ombudspersons must also take great care to ensure that the role and the operations of the office are seen to be autonomous and unaligned, from an informal perspective, with particular individuals or services. It is crucial that ombudspersons operate independently as many observers would conclude that an ombudsperson who is not independent may not be able to maintain confidentiality or behave impartially.
Some of the most effective means of ensuring and demonstrating independence include:
- Reporting relationships are established so that the ombudsperson does not have to fear that any individual will have the authority or ability to influence his or her behaviour: e.g. the ombudsperson reports to a Governing Council or Board of Governors or Senate; the ombudsperson reports to a committee whose membership includes representatives of all of the stakeholders; the ombudsperson reports to the highest staff level of the organization, the President, and the President respects the independence of the office and its incumbent
- The jurisdiction of the office and its operating principles are defined by policy, terms of reference or legislation. The ombudsperson is held accountable for ensuring the mandate is executed properly
- All staff employed in the ombuds office are hired and supervised by the ombudsperson
- The budget of the office is managed by the ombudsperson
- Ombuds offices are physically located in an area where the role is not seen to be identified with any other function of the organization
- Some ombuds offices maintain stand-alone computer networks with substantial security provisions to ensure the ombuds data cannot be accessed by anyone else in the organization. Otherwise, some Ombuds offices use their institution’s computer system while implementing security provisions that ensure confidentiality and independence.
How can the ombudsperson be impartial and yet advocate for change?
Ombudspersons hold themselves to high ethical principles and standards . Impartiality is based on how the ombudsperson reviews the concern or issue brought to his or her attention. The ombudsperson must look at the facts of the case without bias for or against the issue under review or toward any party to the conflict or dispute. See also How to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
When an ombudsperson analyzes the concern or complaint, typically the principles of natural justice and/or standard administrative fairness principles are used to determine whether or not they have been maintained by the decision-maker.
As a result of conducting an objective review of the complaint, the ombudsperson is well positioned to be seen as an advocate for fairness rather than a representative for an individual or for an institution. Similarly, by making recommendations which result in modifications or alterations or even transformation of various processes, the ombudsperson is also clearly an advocate for change, when it is warranted.
How does the Ombudsperson avoid potential conflicts of interest?
The ombudsperson needs to take particular care to avoid all real or perceived conflict of interest. Relationships with parties to a dispute will be such that the ombudsperson has no personal interest in a particular outcome. The ombudsperson must also avoid engaging in activities that would place the office in a conflict of interest (e.g. the ombudsperson can only make recommendations and does not have decision-making roles in the drafting of policies or procedures for the institution).
How does the Ombudsperson maintain confidentiality?
Confidentiality is described in ACCUO’s Standard of Practice. Communications and dealings with the ombudsperson are considered private and confidential. There are two dimensions to the question of confidentiality:
- The ombudsperson will not disclose the name of a visitor to the office or reveal the substance of discussions without that person’s permission, and then will only do so on a need-to-know basis
- Records, notes and files of the ombuds office are for the exclusive use of the ombuds office.
Confidentiality should be maintained, except where, in the ombudsperson’s opinion, there is an imminent risk of serious harm or when compelled by law.
Ombudspersons should take particular care to develop office procedures and systems to ensure the highest degree of confidentiality. This includes securing all files, notes and appointment books when not in use, and ensuring that office files and records are only accessed by the ombudsperson and Ombuds staff. See also How to set up systems and How to transition between ombuds.
Communication to the ombudsperson is not legal notice to the organization. Where appropriate, the ombudsperson refers parties to the proper institutional authority so that the parties can notify the institution of a concern.
“The ombudsperson does not comply with requests for information, does not testify in internal processes of the institution, or staff, faculty or student organization, and resists testifying in any external processes to the full extent of the law” (ACCUO Standards of Practice). Inform yourself about legal parameters and best practice for ensuring the highest level of confidentiality. Consult the ACCUO executive if you need references to resources.
Ombudspersons should adopt a consistent approach explaining the extent of the confidentiality of their files and records on brochures, website and in communications with parties. Ombudspersons should also discuss confidentiality with the Freedom of Information and legal counsel on campus so that those offices understand how the ombuds office operates.
During the process of solving a problem, if an individual wishes to remain anonymous, an ombudsperson may make known information relating to the case as long as reasonable steps have been taken to ensure the identity of the individual is not compromised. However, the ombudsperson should advise an individual seeking anonymity that they might be identified by the facts of the complaint, even if his or her identity is not disclosed. Ombudspersons can also develop consent of release of information forms for certain circumstances (e.g. permission to contact a counsellor or disability officer).
For public reporting purposes, the ombudsperson presents data in anonymous and aggregate form to preserve confidentiality and prevent identification of individuals.
How does the ombudsperson ensure accessibility?
The office should be directly accessible by phone, email (for general, non-confidential exchanges) and in person. Services of the ombudsperson are free of charge and must be well publicized on campus. The physical space must be welcoming, private, and accessible to people with disability (ex. ramps, use of interpretation services for clients with hearing disability …etc). See How to set up physical space . Office procedures should be straightforward for visitors to understand and follow, and information needs to be presented in clear language.
How is the ombudsperson informal?
The ombudsperson aims to see concerns resolved at the lowest appropriate level by providing:
- information and referrals
- problem-solving and early resolution options
- reviews or investigations.
Ombuds procedures are easy to access, follow and are flexible to allow for early resolution; for example:
- simple intake forms
- readily available contact in person or by phone with ombuds office staff
- use of accessible language
- opportunity for the institution to propose a solution during an ombuds intervention (such as problem-solving, review or investigation).
How does the ombudsperson conduct interventions, investigations and make recommendations?
The ombudsperson may intervene: e.g. problem-solve, review a situation, investigate and make recommendations on individual or systemic issues. The ombudsperson may also initiate reviews or investigations of systemic questions. The ombudsperson must have access to all people, files and information relevant to the issue at hand. The ombudsperson may decline to intervene or investigate. The ombudsperson may also close a file if she/he is satisfied that fair process has been followed or that the institution has agreed to implement an appropriate solution. In that situation, the ombudsperson provides reasons.
The process of investigation should be done in a fair manner starting with laying down the principles of investigation until the writing of recommendations. An excellent resource on how to investigate is Gareth Jones’ book Conducting Administrative, Oversight & Ombudsman Investigations (Aurora, Ontario: The Cartwright Group Ltd., 2009).
In making recommendations, the ombudsperson is attentive to fairness for all involved. It is a best practice for the ombudsperson to seek input from the person in authority prior to making a final recommendation (and consider any other appropriate solution offered by that authority). The ombudsperson would also ask the authority to provide a follow-up on the proposed solution. Where a recommendation or solution is not implemented, the ombudsperson would raise the issue at a higher level of the institution or may raise it through the annual report.
How does the ombudsperson keep records?
Ombudspersons keep statistical records to produce an annual report. See also How to maintain confidentiality, How to set up systems, and How to transition between ombuds.
How is the ombudsperson accountable?
See How to develop terms of reference, What is the annual report, and How to evaluate the ombuds office. See also ACCUO Standards of Practice.
How does the ombudsperson promote fairness and constructive change?
The ombudsperson has a particular focus on questions of fair and equitable treatment, process and outcomes. ACCUO is developing Fairness: A Best Practice Guide. When dealing with members of the postsecondary institution’s community and in making decisions, it is important that staff, faculty and administrators attend to the three dimensions of fairness (relational, procedural and substantive), and develop relevant fairness checklists. The ombudsperson provides feedback and recommendations to the appropriate authority at the postsecondary institution and in the annual report for the improvement of policies, procedures and practices.
What is the annual report?
The dissemination of an annual report is a key element of accountability for the ombudsperson and for the institution. The contents of the ombudsperson’s annual report typically include statistics on the volume and type of complaints received; the type of actions and interventions used by the ombudsperson as well as recommendations related to issues that were investigated. This information provides a clear illustration of how the ombudsperson has fulfilled his or her mandate or terms of reference. Publication and dissemination of the report also holds the institution responsible for responding appropriately to the ombudsperson’s recommendations.
An additional benefit of this annual publication is the opportunity it presents for orienting members of the community to the role of the ombudsperson and for discussing issues that relate to fairness. Most ombudspersons table their annual report with Senate or the Board of Governors and then distribute it in hard copy as well as posting it online.
How should an ombuds office be evaluated?
When an evaluation of the ombuds services is needed, the ombudspersons are responsible to assist the evaluation by attempting to acquire feedback, in a structured and confidential fashion, on how the services they provide are perceived by members of the community so that improvements can be made where needed. Ombudspersons can solicit feedback through a variety of means: an online questionnaire that can be completed by users of the office at their convenience on the ombudsperson’s website; hard copy questionnaires set out for pick up in the ombuds office and returned anonymously by mail or in a secure drop-off box; questionnaires mailed to users of the services. Individuals who attend training sessions led by the ombudsperson can also complete anonymous questionnaires on the quality of the training.
In addition, some offices evaluate with the support of external personnel who analyze data received via questionnaires. The external reviewer is typically oriented by the ombudsperson and an ad hoc Review Committee or sub-Committee of a larger committee or Board. If an external review is undertaken, it is important to ensure that the individual hired to do so is very well informed on ombuds principles and standards, as well as structure, functions and operations. The final report is delivered to the ombudsperson for his or her use in determining how services can be improved.
In some situations, the institution undertakes an extensive review process in order to inform long term planning for the office. A committee of stakeholders is provided with specific terms of reference for collecting relevant information and to deliver a final report.
What should be the protocol for transition between ombudspersons?
Every ombudsperson should prepare an “exit plan”. This is especially important in one-person offices. As situations requiring a quick or unexpected exit from an ombuds role are often not predictable it is important to have a brief protocol on file that describes what should happen if an ombudsperson cannot fulfill his or her role as planned due to ill health, personal or other reasons. The protocol should include the following expectation:
While plans are being made for filling the position, it must be understood that the office’s confidential case files and appointment book will only be accessed by an impartial and independent person appointed as interim ombudsperson.
If the ombudsperson’s departure is planned, every effort should be made to provide for a transition period whereby the current ombudsperson and the new ombudsperson are able to work together for a reasonable period of time. Arrangements may also be made for the previous ombudsperson to provide orientation after his or her departure.
- ACCUO (2012). Standards of Practice
- ACCUO website. Creating an Ombuds Office: A Guide for the Institution or Champion
- ACCUO website. Developing Terms of Reference for the Ombuds: A Sample of Clauses from Canadian College and University Ombuds Offices
- ACCUO website. Fairness: A Best Practice Guide (in development)
- Forum of Canadian Ombudsman (2014). Statement of Ethical Principles
- Office of the Ombudsperson at Ryerson University: Fair/Unfair and Fairness Checklist.
- Ombudsman Saskatchewan (2012). What is Fairness?
Examples of terms of reference for ombudspersons in postsecondary institutions
- Concordia University: Terms of Reference of the Ombuds Office; the ombudsperson is appointed by the Board of Governors on recommendation from an advisory committee for a renewable term; the mandate extends to all members of the university community.
- Confederation College: Terms of Reference for the Ombudsperson; the ombudsperson is appointed by the College Planning Committee on recommendation by the President; the mandate extends to students and student-related issues.
- Western University: Memorandum of Agreement between the University and the University Students’ Council, including terms of reference for the Office of the Ombudsperson and for the Advisory Committee for the Office of the ombudsperson; the ombudsperson is hired on recommendation from the Advisory Committee; the mandate extends to students and student-related issues; the funding is shared equally between the University and the Students’ Council.
- University of British Columbia: Terms of Reference for the Office of the Ombudsperson for Students; the ombudsperson is hired by the President on recommendation by the Advisory Committee; the mandate extends to students and student-related issues; the funding is divided between the University, the Alma Mater Society and the Graduate Student Society.
Examples of ombuds office brochures
- Concordia University: Promoting Fairness at Concordia
- Confederation College: Ask for Help If…
- University of British Columbia: Have a problem and don’t know where to start?
Examples of ombuds position advertisements/descriptions:
Examples of intake forms:
Examples of confidentiality or release of information forms:
Examples of annual reports:
To search for annual reports by ombudspersons in Canadian colleges and universities, see ACCUO’s membership links where you will find ombuds websites by institution.
Examples of ombuds service evaluation tools:
- Ombuds user survey at Ryerson
- Satisfaction Survey at UBC
Links to peer-reviewed and other sources and resources
- Anderson, S. V. (1969). Ombudsman Papers: American Experience and Proposals. Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, Berkeley.
- Anderson, Stanley V. (1980). Ombudsman Readings. International Ombudsman Institute.
- Bauer, Frances (2000). The Practice of One Ombuds. In Negotiation Journal, volume 16, issue 1, pages 56-79, January 2000.
- Celebrating Ombuds in Higher Education: ACCUO 1983-2013. On the occasion of ACCUO’s 30th anniversary, a brief overview of the development of ombuds offices in higher education in Canada and the world since 1965.
- Conway, Martine (2013). The Journal of the California Caucus of College and University Ombuds Canadian and US Academic Ombuds: What we are and why it matters. (volume 10, issue 1, pages 28-41).
- Forum of Canadian Ombudsman website. Courses and Conferences.
- Forum of Canadian Ombudsman website. What is an Ombudsman/Ombudsperson?
- Kircheiner, H. H. (1983). The Ideological Foundation of the Ombudsman Institution. In Gerald E. Caiden (Ed.) International Handbook of the Ombudsman, Greenwood Press.
- Lang, C. McKenna (2011). A Western King and an Ancient Notion: Reflections on the Origins of Ombudsing. In Journal of Conflictology, volume 2, issue 2, pages 56-65, November 2011.
- Lebaron, Michelle (2008). Watchdogs and Wise Ones in Winter Lands: The Practice Spectrum of Canadian Ombudsman. The 2008 Forum of Canadian Ombudsman Liz Hoffman Ombudsperson Research Award Paper.
- Russel, Rick (2003). On Being An Ombuds: Considerations And Suggestions For Practice.
© Association of Canadian College and University Ombudspersons (ACCUO) – 2014.