The title "Ombudsman" has a long and honorable history, dating back to 1809 in Sweden. But in this country on the average evening there are probably a thousand times as many smorgasbords as there are ombudsmen -- in fact, you could probably fit the whole batch into the Swedish meatball section alone.
Ten days ago, I attended the annual meeting of the U.S. Association of Ombudsmen, where a variety of governmental complaint handlers gathered. (The university ombudsmen and the press ombudsmen have their own organizations.) Included were city, county, school board and corrections "oms" and some state appointees who deal with problems of long-term care for the aging under the provisions of the Older American Act.
What is an ombudsman? The American Bar Association definition describes the post as held by "an independent governmental official who receives complaints against government agencies and officials from aggrieved persons, who investigates, and who, if the complaints are justified, makes recommendations to remedy the complaints."
The definition challenges those persons appointed by a governor, county executive or mayor who look into complaints against various agencies headed by fellow members of the executive branch of government. The classical Swedish model is an official appointed to a fixed term by the legislature, but a variety of methods have evolved for selection and appointment of ombudsmen, and much seems to depend on the integrity of the holder, however appointed.
At the USAO meeting, Thomas S. Fess, ombudsman for the Montgomery County Board of Education, was elected president; James Ananich, city of Flint, Mich., ombudsman, treasurer, and Pat Glorioso, the Jackson County, M., ombudsman, secretary.
While the group is committed to helping solve problems raised by constituents against units of government, the members were having problems of their own -- several had to pay their own way to the Boston sessions because their jurisdictions did not do so.
There were other, more serious problems. "Political resentment" was a major one, according to Gerald Caiden, a professor at the University of Southern California and longtime observer. The reason: ombudsmen "have insisted on their independence to report on the facts of each complaint investigated." He added, "The most serious political trouble is where they have insisted on protecting human rights."
Perhaps this helps explain why "oms" have not been growing in number in this country at a time when there have been "new offices in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and the Netherlands and the expansion of local municipal offices in other Western European countries," Mr. Caiden said. "While Canada has ombudsman offices in place in all the provinces and at the national level, the institution has never really caught on in the U.S.A."
Incumbent ombudsmen blamed their fewness on the lack of public knowledge of the potential of the office. "It can help keep big government in balance," said one. "Conservatives should like the fact that it helps avert expensive lawsuits against government, and liberals should be concerned about people being beaten up, figuratively, if not literally," said another.
Advocates of the concept cite these advantages: Ombudsmen provide a ready ear to an aggrieved resident; their work is less costly and confrontational than a lawsuit and results are quicker and since an ombudsman can only recommend -- not order -- a government agency runs less risk of runaway verdicts. On the other hand, an ombudsman recommendation has public clout and may provide the face-saving necessary for a department head to overrule an unfair subordinate.
Using the ABA standard there are now ombudsmen in only the states of Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa and Nebraska, the commonwealth of Puerto Rico and about a dozen cities and counties separately and in combination with other governmental units. There are also specialty ombudsmen dealing with nursing homes, prisons and schools, as well as universities and newspapers.
As government continues to grow larger and less accessible for individual citizens, an ombudsman can help achieve responsible, accountable government.