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An ombudsman is a person officially appointed by government or local authorities to manage complaints (usually of private citizens, though sometimes of companies and organized groups of people too) filed against organizations of different types, businesses, and entities. An ombudsman also supervises and gives advice on complaint solving.

There are various forms of organizing an ombudsman’s working process and lines of authority, depending on the country, government type and a sphere the ombudsman operates in.

Variations of Ombudsman roles

In general, an ombudsman is an official responsible for accepting, investigating and commenting on a problem. This position almost always exist in government structures, although large public entities and companies often appoint their own ombudsmen.

So, it’s possible to distinguish two large types of ombudsmen:

  • Official ombudsmen, who are given the position by the government and act as its representative, checking the cases of abuse of power and poor performance in the governmental structures.
  • Unofficial ombudsmen, who work for organizations and deal with its employees’ and clients’ reports and applications on the improper service and violations of their rights.

Another classification of ombudsman exists, ranging the types by size of a sphere an ombudsman is responsible for:

  • A classical ombudsman, who works with a broad field of issues from corruption to the human right violations of a certain individual, often intending to spot systematic problems in the governmental structure.
  • An industry ombudsman, whose sphere of responsibility includes a certain area of production or service, for example, telecommunication or post service, as different industrial spheres might have highly specific problems, as well as means of tackling those problems. For industrial ombudsmen, it’s also usual to work on the complaints, together with analyzing the complaints en masse to identify typical and frequently appearing ones.
  • An organizational ombudsman, whose working area is the smallest, concentrating on the issues arising within a certain organization, being that a customer’s complaint or a problem an internal worker faces within the company.

In some countries, an officer carrying out a role similar to that of an ombudsman, might be called by another name, for instance, an inspector, a defender, a citizen advocate, and some others. There is also a position of an advocate ombudsman in some countries, whose main role is to protect the rights of vulnerable groups of the population, and might be found in both private and public segments. Many governments also appoint a separate position of the Children’s Ombudsman (or The Child Protection Ombudsman, Child Welfare Services Ombudsman in some US states) to concentrate only on child-related issues.

Another peculiar kind of ombudsman is the Media Ombudsman, responsible for truthful and adequate news presentation in different forms of media and accepting complaints on improper reporting, fakes and other problems. The work of such an officer, if done correctly, influences the trust and general approving of the media and news channels, as it increases transparency and creates feedback for the society.

Main features of Ombudsman responsibilities

As it has been stated above, there are various types of ombudsmen, who might have different mandates and working spheres. Nevertheless, the key principles of the ombudsman’s work remain the same in most cases.

Firstly, it’s highly important to note that an official ombudsman is appointed by the government, but is an independent actor, and for his or her sufficiency and productivity this independence from other government structures and workers must be kept. As the ombudsman often has to investigate cases of abuse within the official organizations, any relation or possible influences should be avoided.

Concerning mandates, an ombudsman’s responsibilities are determined by the sphere and jurisdictions he or she works in. A classical official ombudsman usually has a wide range of issues and complaints to work with, and other types of ombudsmen have responsibilities which are narrowed by their positions.

After a complaint is filed to an ombudsman, he or she must investigate the problem, finding out if the described situation actually takes place. Typically, an ombudsman doesn’t affect the situation directly, instead of it providing recommendations and controlling the process of solving the problem, or serving as a mediator between the parties.

The recommendations given might or might not be legally binding, but in a lot of cases companies and entities follow the advice to avoid further consequences. If the problem isn’t solved after the ombudsman's involvement, the case is often transferred to the court, and the ombudsman’s conclusion is taken into consideration there.

The service is traditionally provided for free for the citizens, with the ombudsman getting paid indirectly in the form of fees or taxes.

Criticism of Ombudsman concept

Although there are several undeniable advantages of maintaining a specific officer with the duties described above, the concept has been criticized for a number of reasons.

The first and the main point of criticism is based on the fact that the ombudsman’s efficiency heavily depends on the other parties’ representatives because most of the ombudsman’s work is organized via negotiating and communicating with the involved parties. So, if no one of those people cooperates, the ombudsman’s ability to achieve any tangible success is limited.

Another important issue is the responsibility of an ombudsman, as the society’s trust and approve is often connected with the results of solving problems, i.e. the result of his or her work.

Also, in some cases, it takes a significant amount of time for the complaint to be considered and investigated, as the problems brought to the ombudsman are often complex, and require time to solve and prepare a detailed reaction. In general, it might take from a month to half a year for a complaint to be processed.

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