Feel Like David Against Goliath? You May Need an Ombudsman

By: Laurie L. Dove  | 

ombudsman
An ombudsman investigates complaints and attempts to resolve them, usually through recommendations, binding or not, or through mediation. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 3.0)/HowStuffWorks

If you feel you've been wronged by a sizeable business, university or government agency, lodging a complaint may feel like an uphill battle. Imagine yourself as Sisyphus, the mythological Greek king doomed to push a boulder uphill, only for it to roll back down over and over — for eternity. Sounds a bit like raising a complaint only to have progress and the resolution to your problem stymied. Will you ever reach an equitable solution?

Enter the unbiased ombudsman. An ombudsman or ombudsperson is appointed at a national or local level to investigate complaints made by private citizens against a public business or organization, any entity subject to government regulation or the government itself.

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Countries, States and City Governments Have Ombudsmen

Many countries have this service available, including the United States. Each elected member of the United States Congress, for example, is appointed as an ombudsman to advocate for their constituents on issues occurring at a federal level.

State governments typically have an Office of the Ombudsman, staffed by people who can help private citizens with questions or concerns about some private entities, as well as public entities and government services. Ombudsman offices also help clarify or explain complex issues and, importantly, resolve disagreements and advocate for equitable solutions.

You'll find ombudsman offices outside the government as well. An industry ombudsman will investigate consumer complaints about companies that operate within that sector, and this will often overlap with government agency oversight.

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How it Works

Let's consider an example. What if you believe an elderly relative's care isn't up to snuff at their retirement home? If it is a large, multi-state organization, it may have its own ombudsman to investigate claims, or — regardless of the organization's size — there will be an ombudsman available from the government agency that oversees the sector.

What can you expect from an ombudsman investigation? It will usually take several weeks or months for the ombudsman to gather information and make a ruling on the matter. While not all rulings by an ombudsman are legally binding, even those that aren't legally binding will carry considerable significance.

The benefit, especially when it comes to an ombudsman investigation of claims against governmental entities, is that it helps rein in an abuse of power against citizens who might otherwise not have the resources to seek relief.

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