Ombudsperson. For some of us, this sounds like a hippy who sells illegal drugs. But, I can assure you, that is not what that term means. While I know the term well, it is not a concept familiar to people outside of academia or public administration. An ombudsperson is a third-party official whose role is to investigate individuals’ complaints against maladministration, especially that of public authorities. In other words, it’s a system of checks and balances to assure complaints are being heard and dealt with as objectively as possible.
In my academic experience, students often contacted ombudspeople when they had an issue with a professor or administrative person. It allowed them to bring up concerns without fear of repercussion. You’re given the choice of anonymity, so you could rest assured knowing the backlash would be minor. It keeps the process fair and assures that there is progress made to rectify the issue at hand. Sometimes these positions are appointed and other times they are found through hiring committees. Regardless of how they are designated, their role is to act as a public advocate and assure equitable processes are used to solve issues.
Why do I bring this up now? The term has recently been mentioned in the media. Yvette Simpson, who is running for the Democratic mayoral nomination in 2017, has proposed a plan to hire an ombudsperson, if elected. She shared that having an open process is important to her. Why hasn’t this option been mentioned before by candidates? Do we really need a position like this in the city? I can tell you firsthand that having an ombudsman can be empowering for those with minimal agency. Their concerns are shared with a single person/office, so the protocol is known by everyone. Often, the voices of the marginalized are not heard, and that goes double when the complaints are about public officials and police officers. It isn’t just empowering for alleged victims, but for those being accused of wrongdoings also.
I have also been on this end, serving as an impartial member of a grievance committee team, with an ombudsperson included. The process involved collecting documentation and interviews from all parties involved, then meeting to find a solution to the problem. I felt the ombudsperson stayed focused on the goal of solving the problem, not the person’s personal life, power or privilege.
This idea of having a central office to hear concerns is needed in my opinion. It is quite easy to be confused about who to call for disputes, especially when they involve multiple parties. Just try calling about a cut down sign on the sidewalk, and you will see what I mean. It is known that having centralized services is a great thing. It saves on costs, keeps the process transparent and makes it easier to follow-up. Let’s not forget documentation will be available for review longitudinally. Cities need to put hearing concerns, and dealing with them, into practice.
One could argue that we already have situations that need an ombudsperson. Citizen complaints about police, local codes for outcroppings, privatizing public spaces and disinvestment in neighborhoods with majority people of color are all community issues being debated in multiple rings. It is hard to make complaints now because the fear of repercussions in real. Your complaints are heard, but at what cost? Will your neighborhood be given extra (unwanted) police patrol? Will an official come out to measure the four feet required of sidewalks? Will someone visit your neighborhood park and basketball court to look up property lines and parcels? Perhaps these issues will be the same with or without an ombudsperson. But, I can say that you would at least be kept up to date and know someone is looking into the issue.
The purpose of this article is not to throw support behind any candidate, but to acknowledge that our city could use an ombudsman. We have issues with the way complaints are heard (and ignored). It is important for the concerns of citizens to be heard. And it equally important that action takes place after complaints. Whether this is done with or without an ombudsman is not important. It is just important that something is being done that doesn’t negatively affect the people in the dispute and that the people involved all feel valued.