Ombudsmen in the United States

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See Ombudsman for the definitions and examples of other ombudsman throughout the globe.

In the United States, there is no unified federal ombudsman service. The role of handling complaints against federal authorities has to some extent been unofficially incorporated into the role of the US Congressman. This informal job has become increasingly time consuming. It is subject to criticism on the grounds that it interferes with a legislator's primary duty, namely to read and be knowledgeable about a bill before casting his or her vote.[1]

Federal Departments and agencies[edit]

Several ombudsman services have been created as complaint-handling units housed within, but operationally independent from, specific federal authorities.

Internal Revenue Service[edit]

In 1979 the Taxpayer Ombudsman Office was created within the Internal Revenue Service to act as an ombudsman for the taxpayer.[2] Renamed in 1996 as the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate, this office has a unique role with the Treasury Department as having the responsibility to submit annual reports to Congress without any prior review or comment from the IRS Commissioner, the Secretary of the Treasury, any other officer or employee of the Department of the Treasury, or the Office of Management and Budget.[3]

Department of Homeland Security Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman[edit]

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman (CIS Ombudsman) provides recommendations for resolving individual and employer problems with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).[4] As mandated by the Homeland Security Act of 2002 § 452, the CIS Ombudsman is not a part of USCIS, but an independent DHS office which reports directly to the DHS Deputy Secretary.

The Ombudsman assists individuals and employers in resolving problems with USCIS; identifies areas in which individuals and employers have problems in dealing with USCIS; and proposes changes to mitigate identified problems. The Ombudsman submits an annual report to the House and Senate Committees on the Judiciary, focusing on systemic issues that cause delay in granting immigration benefits as well as pervasive and serious problems faced by individuals and employers in their interactions with USCIS.

The First Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman (2003–08) was Prakash Khatri. During his tenure, he delivered four annual reports to Congress which included over 70 recommendations for improvements to USCIS.

Department of Education[edit]

The Department of Education has an Office of the Ombudsman, which works with federal student loan borrowers to resolve loan disputes or problems from an impartial, independent viewpoint.[5]

Environmental Protection Agency[edit]

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an ombudsman to facilitate communication between small business owners and the agency.

Food and Drug Administration[edit]

The Food and Drug Administration Ombudsman seeks to ensure that the agency fulfils its regulatory responsibilities well.[6] In the short term, the Office is dedicated to facilitating problem resolution. In the long term, the Office looks at issues systematically in order to make the process work better. Thus it welcomes more general complaints, comments, and suggestions about FDA's regulatory processes.

United States Navy[edit]

The US Navy implemented an ombudsman program in 1970, under the direction of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt. Through the Navy Ombudsman Program, communication between the spouses of active duty personnel and the command is kept open, thereby improving the quality of life for everyone involved. The Navy command ombudsman is a voluntary position, and seeks to ensure that the dependents of active duty personnel have a channel of resources for their needs and quality of life. A command ombudsman aims to guide those who use the service to the help they may need, before, during or after a deployment. The Navy Ombudsman undergoes almost constant training, and is bound by confidentiality except in relation to allegations of child abuse. An ombudsman meets with department heads aboard a naval installation to find out the latest news, and pass it on, including news on ship deployments, cutting down on potentially harmful gossip.

State-level ombudsmen[edit]

Since 1967 at least five state legislatures and one territorial legislature have established and continued to employ a full-time ombudsman. These states are Hawaii, Nebraska, Alaska, Iowa and Arizona, and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Many other states have ombudsmen appointed by, and located within the office of, the governor.

The job description for state offices of ombudsmen invariably involves the trouble-shooting function of investigating citizen complaints concerning specific acts by government agencies. For example, in Nebraska the ombudsman's duties are as follows:

To receive complaints from the public and from persons working in government; to investigate; and where appropriate to negotiate remedial action with the agencies involved. A secondary duty is to answer questions and assist people with problems relating to government.[7]

Other state ombudsmen include:

State Long Term Care Ombudsmen[edit]

Several states have a long term care ombudsman [2] whose duties include assistance to residents of nursing homes, including New York State [3], and supplemental programs developed to protect long term care residents' rights.

State children's ombudsmen[edit]

Most states have a children's advocate or ombudsman service: see main children's ombudsman article.

Other specialist state ombudsmen[edit]

Other states have ombudsmen specific to particular issues, including:

  • State of Minnesota Office of the Ombudsman for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities
  • The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management employs an ombudsman "charged with authority to undertake independent, and in certain cases confidential, fact-finding in response to external or internal complaints or questions about the Department's performance." The office is currently held by Thomas Getz.[8]
  • See also the Washington State Office of Education Ombudsman.
  • Michigan has an Office of Employer Ombudsman to aid in employer-related Unemployment Insurance Agency questions.[9]
  • Most states, including Puerto Rico, have an Ombudsman associated with its State Department of Aging (or similar). Within these states are AAAs (Area Agencies on Aging), most often headed by a paid manager of a volunteer network of ombudsmen assigned to such facilities as skilled nursing homes, personal care homes, centers for the aging (outpatient), and the like. These ombudsmen are trained and taught that they "work for the aged", not the personnel managing the facilities. They act as advocates for the residents or attendees when complaints or disputes arise between the aging and the management. If no resolution can be worked-out locally, the matter in dispute is carried higher, first to district officials and, if necessary, to the state, often involving the state licensing agency that oversees the facility in question.

In the case of Puerto Rico, while the main Ombudsman's office, created in 1977 in a statute signed by Gov. Carlos Romero Barceló is under the Legislative Branch's jurisdiction, four specialized ombudsmen offices (Aging, Veterans, Health and Disabilities) fall under the Executive Branch's Office of Ombudsmen Offices.

  • Utah created the Office of the Property Rights Ombudsman in 1996. This office advises citizens on property rights, and helps resolve disputes arising between property owners and government agencies acquiring property. www.propertyrights.utah.gov. The Office is authorized to mediate between property owners and government agencies, arbitrate disputes, and issue advisory opinions on land use and development issues.

City and county ombudsmen[edit]

King County, Washington[edit]

The King County Ombudsman's Office was created by the voters of King County, Washington, in the Home Rule Charter of 1968, and operates as an independent office within the legislative branch of King County government. King County is the most populous county in Washington and includes Seattle, the state's most populous city. The Office investigates complaints regarding the administrative conduct of King County agencies, and alleged violations of county codes dealing with employee ethics, whistleblower protection, and lobbyist disclosure. The King County Ombudsman is appointed to a renewable five-year term by the King County Council and is removable mid-term only for cause.[10]

Los Angeles[edit]

The Los Angeles County Department of Ombudsman was created via the approval of an ordinance in 1993 by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. This department was the first of its kind in the state of California and the first nationally involved in law enforcement oversight.[11]

New York City[edit]

The New York City Public Advocate is the ombudsman for residents of New York City. It investigates and responds to telephone and written complaints/queries regarding city agency services, providing information and referrals. [4]

Industry and organizational ombudsmen[edit]

Ombudsman associations[edit]

  • CFO - Coalition of Federal Ombudsmen (CFO) - promoting and assisting ombudsmen in federal government institutions
  • USOA - United States Ombudsman Association (USOA) - Promoting and supporting fairness, accountability, and equity in government through the public sector ombudsman

References[edit]

  1. ^ Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report 35 (3 September 1977): 1855.
  2. ^ Taxation - Report of the National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson, American Bar Association, February 27, 2008
  3. ^ Pub.L. 104–168, 110 Stat. 1452, enacted July 30, 1996, §101(a)
  4. ^ Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman (CIS Ombudsman)
  5. ^ https://studentaid.ed.gov/repay-loans/disputes/prepare/contact-ombudsman
  6. ^ Food and Drug Administration Ombudsman
  7. ^ Kent M. Weeks, Ombudsmen Around the World: A Comparative Chart, 2d. ed. (Berkeley: University of California, Institute of Governmental Studies, 1978), p. 162.
  8. ^ RI DEM/Office of the Ombudsman Home Page
  9. ^ http://www.michigan.gov/uia/0,1607,7-118-6006-11782--,00.html
  10. ^ King County Ombudsman, Washington State
  11. ^ Los Angeles Department of Ombudsman