Toward the Activist Ombudsman: An Introduction

Published date01 July 2014
Date01 July 2014
C R Q, vol. 31, no. 4, Summer 2014 387
Published 2014.  is article is a U.S. Government work and is in the public domain in the USA.
Published online in Wiley Online Library ( • DOI: 10.1002/crq.21099
Toward the Activist Ombudsman: An Introduction
Howard Gadlin
is introduction frames the articles in this mini-colloquy on the work
of the Offi ce of the Ombudsman at the National Institutes of Health,
Center for Cooperative Resolution (OO/CCR).  is offi ce is unique
in its size, experience, and approach to the work of the organizational
ombudsman.  rough this series of articles, we share our understand-
ings of the potential for the role of the organizational confl ict man-
agement specialists called ombudsmen and to assist other organizations
and practitioners as they consider and enact similar roles within their
In the 1960s and 1970s, as confl ict resolution was beginning to catch
on, many organizations were searching for ways to limit litigation costs
and effi ciently address internal confl icts. Often organizations established
mediation programs as the centerpiece of their eff orts to address confl icts
within the organization. Other organizations established ombudsman pro-
grams because in addition to settling disputes, they are also charged with
identifying and addressing systemic sources of confl ict.
National Institutes of Health: The Organizational Context
In the late 1990s, under a presidential mandate to create dispute resolution
programs in every federal agency, the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
opted to establish an ombudsman program. It was a generally exciting
time at NIH; research breakthroughs, many with potential implications
for treating and curing disease, seemed almost commonplace. With close
to unanimous bipartisan support, Congress had approved a fi ve-year plan
to double the agency’s budget.  e predominant stance on campus was “we
can do it.” It was an ideal time to establish the offi ce. e senior executive
C R Q • DOI: 10.1002/crq
leadership was completely behind the idea, and programs within the orga-
nization that might otherwise see a strong dispute resolution program as
competition (human resources, Equal Employment Opportunity Com-
mission, Offi ce of General Counsel) were headed by people who had been
involved in the decision to create the offi ce and were committed to its suc-
cess. In addition, the leaders of the scientifi c community on campus were
looking for ways in which disputes among scientists might be addressed
collegially and confi dentially and without resorting to the formal grievance
processes, which are not well suited to scientifi c disagreements.
To underscore the commitment to a dispute resolution program that
did more than settle disputes, the full title for the offi ce was Offi ce of the
Ombudsman/Center for Cooperative Resolution (OO/CCR). At NIH,
designating a program a “center” gives it a higher status and broader scope
than just calling it an “offi ce” or a “program.” In addition, we benefi ted
from the fact that there had been no preexisting program; there was no
history of the way things had been done before, no legacy of a previous
ombudsman for comparison.
Coming into this climate, I felt we had permission to test the boundar-
ies of the ombudsman role, push beyond the limits of confl ict resolution,
and develop a full-service confl ict engagement service for all parts of the
organization (for a discussion of the sources of and remedies for workplace
confl ict, see Katz and Flynn 2013 or McGuigan and McMechan 2005).
In an organization devoted to experimentation, it was relatively easy to
take such risks and develop into what might be described as an activist
ombudsman program, involved in much more than simply addressing the
individual or group problems, confl icts, and concerns of those who come
to us for assistance.
One can think of ombudsman programs as arrayed along a continuum
ranging from reactive at one end to activist on the other. Although there are
no empirical studies comparing the actual activities of ombudsmen from
diff erent organizations, ombudsmen often describe their work in presenta-
tions at meetings of the professional associations, during training sessions
for new ombudsmen, and in conversations.  e International Ombuds-
man Association standards of practice identify four pillars of the ombuds-
man function: independence, neutrality, confi dentiality, and informality
( Most ombudsman programs, especially concerned that
they be seen as independent and neutral, are cautious about how engaged
they are in their organization, the kinds of working relationships they have
with organizational colleagues, and how directly involved they become in

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