Are Ombuds Offices Expendable?

I just learned that my University is closing its Ombuds Office, to save resources in these tight times, and instead is spreading out its functions among various related offices (student complaints to Dean of Students Office; employee disputes to Human Resources, etc.).  It seems to me that this economically-driven decision clearly undervalues dispute resolution.  While those related offices are generally familiar with the subject matter of complaints, they are not trained in or equipped to use informal dispute resolution mechanisms to resolve these disputes in a quick, cost-efficient manner.   Doesn’t seem so cost-effective a decision, in the long run, does it?

6 thoughts on “Are Ombuds Offices Expendable?”

  1. Depends upon how good the incumbent Ombudsman is. If the incumbent is not performing as well as desired, budget cuts offer a chance to remove the incumbent and then re-establish the function at some future date with someone else.

  2. What I find shocking is that the previous Ombuds at Pace (for 11 years) was Mr. Johnston Barkat, current Ombudsman for the United Nations. One would think going from Pace to the UN would be proof of not only the individuals valid work, but also the benefit provided to the university.

  3. Dear Jill,

    You are right on point about short-term thinking and planning, and not understanding the value of the ombuds office. In many circumstances, it offers an opportunity to resolve a dispute / conflict before the institution has official “notice” of it, and if resolved early, is potentially saving the institution thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands at times. Moreover, the formal grievance offices will now encounter more stress, bottleneck, and cannot ensure impartiality or confidentiality to complainants. Because it is not a “compliance” office (required under the law) or an office that is easily quantifiable in terms of how much money it saves the institution, the ombuds office is sometimes mistakenly perceived as being “extra”…In fact, it is quite unique in its benefits and functions, and it is hard work to try to demonstrate how it makes a difference. But, then again, the organization that creates an ombuds office should also work hard to understand the value of the office. If it doesn’t, perhaps it’s better not to have one at all rather than engage in a one-sided pursuit for an office that will not be properly supported and will end up being a token.

    Sad news indeed.

  4. You are right on the money. The cost savings offered by Organizational Ombuds and other ADR programs is substantial. Unfortunately, only the costs are reflected in an organization’s financial statement. The benefits–avoided litigation and improved climate–are hidden. The real mistake is assuming that other programs like HR, EEO, or EAP can fill in for an Ombuds. Although these programs may be familiar with the organization’s culture, they cannot bring confidential, neutral, independent, and informal expertise to conflicts. Hopefully Ombuds programs will rebound with the economy and the growing acceptance of ADR.

  5. I agree with Diane. Not only does dispute resolution result in cost savings in the initial handling of an issue, but if handled properly saves in terms of mended/healed relationships that lead to long term savings emotionally, financially, human relations-wise, and enhances the institution’s self-esteem with its stakeholders. The use of this approach is not a luxury or frill, but should be an institutionalized efficiency that saves in the near-term and in the long-term. It can also teach the participants how to handle future disagreements constructively, which can make the organization function much more effectively and efficiently.

  6. It never ceases to amaze me how all too often dispute resolution programs – the very programs that actually save organizations relationships, time, and money – are the first casualties of budget shortfalls and cutbacks. More evidence that our work continues to be undervalued and misunderstood. Okay, dispute resolution gang, what are we going to do to turn this around?

    Thanks for alerting your readers about this. Sad news indeed.

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