Cornell University

Catherwood Library

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Question of the Month

From the Catherwood Library reference librarians

November 2001

PLEASE NOTE: The Reference Question of the Month is kept current only during the month for which it was written. Archived questions will not be updated, and over time may contain inaccurate information or broken web links. We provide archived questions as a service, since much of the information will remain accurate and of continued interest to the ILR community.

Question: What is an ombudsman? Where does the term come from? Is the correct usage ombudsman, ombuds, or ombudsperson?

Answer: Whether called Ombudsman, Ombuds, or Ombudsperson they all perform the function of assisting persons with resolving problems or complaints and achieving equitable settlements. Ombuds can often provide information on policies and practices, help examine alternatives, and find the proper authorities to resolve the situation. As an unbiased "third party," they can find solutions that have eluded the interested parties. The Ombuds usually does not have the power to make decisions that are binding, but they may have the power to initiate an investigation even if a complaint has not been registered. Most importantly, their services are independent and are confidential. Ombuds are usually found in the public sector, but in recent years their numbers have grown in the private sector where they are often used as a form of alternative dispute resolution.

In recent years, Ombudsmen in the United States have moved to a less gender specific word, Ombuds or Ombudsperson, to reflect current societal norms. The word Ombud is of Swedish origin and means the people's representative, agent, attorney, solicitor, deputy, proxy, or delegate. The first Ombudsman was appointed by the Parliament of Sweden in 1809 to resolve problems in the absence of the country's abducted king. The Swedish model of a public sector Ombudsman who deals with complaints from the public regarding decisions, actions or omissions of public administration was widely adopted by other nations. In addition, many countries have established human rights commissions, which use Ombuds as a means of promoting and protecting human rights. It is estimated that there are Ombuds at the national level of government in 110 countries around the world.


The International Ombudsman Institute (I.O.I.), established in 1978, is a worldwide organization of Ombudsman offices. Their site includes a history of public sector Ombudsman and a listing of their many publications, including the International Ombudsman Yearbook.

Many countries and governments also maintain sites for their Ombuds. If you are looking for a particular country we recommend using a search engine (i.e. Google) and keyword searching for the country and "ombuds".

An example of this type of web site is the UK's Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Health Service Ombudsman, which undertakes independent investigations into complaints about government departments, a range of other public bodies, and the National Health Service. They offer an excellent, well-organized site that includes recent news, press releases, publications, and links Scottish and Welsh Ombudsman.

United States

There are several associations in the United States that support the work of Ombuds, including:

The Ombudsman Association is a non-profit, international organization of professional organizational Ombuds. The TOA site includes publications for practicing Ombuds and an extensive list of related links.

The United States Ombudsman Association (USOA) serves public sector Ombuds offices across the United States, and member offices in Canada, Central America, and other parts of the globe.

The University and College Ombuds Association is an international organization of persons who perform the Ombuds function in universities and colleges and individuals affiliated with institutes of higher learning who are interested in Ombuds practice.

Government and industry watch groups also offer Ombuds programs; a few examples:

Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) is an independent non-government scheme. It is not a consumer advocate, but rather a service to help consumers and telecommunications companies resolve disputes, including complaints about Internet service providers (ISPs). The TIO is independent of telecommunications companies, consumer groups and government, and is a free service to consumers.

The United States Department of Energy has several Ombuds, including an Office of the National Ombudsman and Sandia National Laboratories Ombuds.

Private Industry

The use of Ombuds in private industry is new and it is difficult to find examples of them on the web. One example:

Fleet offers a Corporate Ombuds Program as an additional channel for employees to raise concerns about discrimination, equity and fair treatment in the workplace.

Ombuds programs have also been established by private industry as part of Settlement Agreements. An example is:

Texaco's Ombuds Program


As Ombuds have become increasingly important in alternative dispute resolution, many universities have become active in researching and expanding their roles.

The Center for Information Technology and Dispute Resolution, University of Massachusetts, offers an Online Ombuds Office as a dispute resolution service for persons and institutions who would like an online mediator to assist them in setting a dispute.

Mary P. Rowe, Ombudsperson, Special Assistant to the President, and Adjunct Professor - Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology makes a number of her publications available on MIT's Ombuds website. The site also includes an Ombuds Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice.

The American Bar Association offers several online publications relating to Ombuds, including: Standards for the Establishment and Operation of Ombuds Offices.

The Peacemakers Trust and the Conflict Resolution Network Canada supports the Conflict Resolution Bibliography Initiative, which publishes Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding: A Selected Bibliography, by Catherine Morris. The Bibliography includes a section on Ombuds Offices: Classical and Organizational Models.

The function of Ombuds is often discussed as a part of Alternative Dispute Resolution. Some recommended texts that are available in the Catherwood library are: Elkouri, Frank, Elkouri & Elkouri, How Arbitration Works, co-editors, Marl M. Volz, Edward P. Goggin. Elkouri, Frank. Washington, DC : Bureau of National Affairs, 1997 and Dauer, Edward A., Manual of Dispute Resolution: ADR law and practice, contributing authors, Cynthia Savage, James Seifert, Colorado Springs, Colo. : Shepard's/McGraw-Hill ; New York : McGraw-Hill, c1994-.

— Researched by mjn3