Problem With Government? There May Be an Ombud for That.
States are increasingly creating specialized ombudsman offices to cater to citizens' complaints.
“Many parents of children with special needs ... find it difficult to get the services they need for their youngsters and so they come to us,” says state Sen. Diane Allen, who represents a district in Burlington County, N.J.
While it's good for lawmakers to know about issues concerning citizens, they often don't have time to investigate every complaint. They also may be biased toward one agency or another.
That's why New Jersey is one of the steady flow of states that have established ombudsmen offices for various departments. Ombudsmen are, by the nature of their job descriptions, neutral when it comes to a citizen vs. agency squabble. Increasingly, the people who hold these posts are being referred to as “ombuds,” in order to eliminate the gender-focused nature of the word ombudsman.
The special needs office in New Jersey will be hiring its first ombud any day. That person will help parents navigate the confounding world of government and seek to prevent the lawsuits that sometimes result from such confusion.
The earliest ombuds served during the Nixon administration, which pushed states to set up these offices to help protect the rights of men and women who live in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities. Federal funding was provided through the Older Americans Act, and nowadays, most long-term care ombuds are volunteers, according to Beverly Laubert, the long-term care ombud for Ohio.
Since then, a handful of states -- including Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii and Iowa -- started ombud offices with a broad focus. But in the past decade, ombuds have become much more specialized.
“We’ve seen a growing number of governments starting specialty ombud offices,” says Amy Calderwood, the outreach chair of the United States Ombudsman Association and ombud for King County, Wash.
Precise data about the new offices haven’t been gathered, but some of the biggest growth areas include health care, education, corrections and children's services.
Rhode Island, for example, is considering a bill that would create an ombud for people with developmental disabilities. The genesis of the legislation was "an incident where a developmentally disabled woman died at a state-run group home in Providence after a broken leg went several days without being treated," according to a press release.
Ombuds don't have power to create regulation or to adjudicate differences of opinion between citizens and agencies. Their role is to help the citizen clearly understand what the agency is supposed to do for them, and often to help the agency understand why an individual believes he or she has been shortchanged. Think of them as states’ departments of conciliation.
But as much as ombud offices can help people (and government), there's still some resistance to their establishment. Some legislators, for example, don't want to give up their role as constituents' go-to support system, says Calderwood. In other instances, she adds, funding can be hard to come by.
Despite the challenges, the generally recognized success of ombuds is leading some governments to create them in new areas. A year and a half ago, Maryland appointed Roger Campos as one of the nation's first statewide business ombuds.
In his first year of operation, he handled about 75 cases. Since Jan. 1 of this year, he's already handled about 130.
“As people increasingly get to know that I exist, I’m getting more and more calls,” says Campos.
One of the biggest functions Campos' still-small office serves is to answer companies' questions about lawsuits. They often decide they want to settle and struggle to understand how “because they’re dealing with lawyers on both sides who aren’t interested in that route," he says.
"So, I come in as an objective independent party to bring the groups together to try to find a common-sense solution.”
*Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated that Roger Campos is the nation's first statewide business ombud; he is actually Maryland's first.