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International, Ombuds and reviewers, Research

Analysis: Public trust and ombudsmen

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Ombudsmen have an important role in safeguarding public trust in professions and public service providers. In “Public trust and the ombudsman: the case of the OIA”, published on 12 March 2015, Rob Behrens (Chief Executive of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA)) examines the role of the ombudsman in the context of market reforms in higher education and erosion of public trust in the professions more generally.

Feedback mechanism

Fundamental to this function of safeguarding public trust (and of generating that trust) is the ombudsman’s responsibility to “ensure that the service or profession over which it has oversight receives informed policy and operational feedback from complaints decisions. Policy and operational feedback should not necessarily interfere with the independent judgment of the profession, but should be capable of promoting professional and corporate development. This is difficult to achieve in part because of a (necessary) cultural divide between complaints handlers and professional practitioners.”

Despite the difficulties, classic ombudsman schemes which are content to take action only after the event, when a detriment has occurred, are performing only half the role of their organisation. An important challenge is to work in partnership with institutions to promote good practice to avert detriments to individuals and groups.”

“In carrying out these core tasks – providing redress and giving feedback emerging from cases – complaints handlers have the opportunity of generating or retaining user confidence and wider public trust not only in themselves but also in the service provided by the institutions over which they have oversight.”

Transparency

Behrens discusses the way that transparency can aid in building trust – by, for example, an ombudsman publishing information about complaints and about the compliance, or otherwise, of bodies in jurisdiction.

He also explores arguments about the limitations of transparency in engendering public trust, citing Baroness O’Neill’ Reith Lectures in 2002 and EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, who has said that while ‘transparency is the single most important element in the overall trust framework…it does not necessarily result in action or political engagement even when seriously unacceptable practices are disclosed.’

Key elements

Behrens sets out four key elements of public trust:

  • perceived honesty and independence of a profession and of professionals’ ability to make public interest decisions ‘unsullied by vested interest or political interference’;
  • core competence in service users and the wider public;
  • a strong internal culture fostering standards and openness as a way to improve integrity and increase confidence in public institutions; and
  • manifestation of ‘active trust’ and trustworthy behaviour by professions and oversight bodies’.

The need for empirical research

Whether ombudsmen are successful in safeguarding public trust is not yet known. Behrens notes that although “it is an important strategic aim that ombudsmen generate public trust not only in themselves but in the services which they hear complaints about, as Marc Hertogh has pointed out, the success of ombudsmen in western Europe in achieving this aim is far from proven. The same must be said about the OIA in England and Wales, though this does not invalidate the strategic aim”.

Hertogh, in his 2012 study of ombudsmen in the Low Countries, found that although most public-sector ombudsmen claim that their work will strengthen or restore citizen’s confidence in government, empirical research provides little support for this assumption. He identified specific factors that limit the positive, trust-generating, “‘radiating effects’ of the ombudsman procedure to the population” in Belgium and the Netherlands that might also be relevant to the UK context.

Another aspect of public trust is the role of influencers on public opinion of ombudsmen and other redress mechanisms. At a conference in 2013 on the legitimacy and impact of ombudsmen schemes in the UK, Chris Gill (Lecturer in Administrative Justice at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh) and Naomi Creutzfeldt (ESRC Research Fellow at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford University) noted that there was little data on public trust in ombudsman and ADR schemes. They examined the concerns of users of ombudsman schemes who were dissatisfied with their experiences and who had taken to social media (setting up websites, blogs, and twitter accounts) in order to protest and campaign for change:

These online activists — some of whom refer to themselves as ‘ombudsman watchers’ — could be seen either as dysfunctional vigilantes pursuing unreasonable ‘gripes’ or as engaged and empowered citizens pursuing legitimate protest. Their concerns in relation to ombudsman and ADR schemes include their perceived lack of independence, unfair procedures, lack of training, lack of competence, and a lack of accountability.

While keeping an open mind in relation to the validity of these criticisms, it was suggested that — given the potential of ombudsman watchers to influence public trust in ombudsman schemes — research was required to establish:

  • what ombudsman watchers were concerned about;
  • how influential the ombudsman watchers might be in shaping public perceptions and discourse about ombudsman and ADR schemes; and
  • whether the concerns they express provide any insights into the operation of ombudsman and ADR schemes and the informal justice system more broadly.”

“Public trust and the ombudsman: the case of the OIA” by Rob Behrens is available at http://oiahe.org.uk/media/98008/public-trust-and-the-ombudsman-10th-anniversary-series.pdf

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