A newspaper brands someone racist. A long-term care facility denies a married
elderly couple privacy. A university professor gives a low grade to a student
whose views are considered unconventional. These are all cases where the public
may feel that the system is against them. And that's when they turn to an
An ombudsman listens to complaints from the public. They must be impartial.
They must also be able to investigate the case, suggest solutions and make
sure those solutions are carried out.
It used to be that only public government bodies used ombudsmen. Now all
kinds of organizations are using ombudsmen, from long-term care facilities
to newspapers and even funeral homes. Their role is being increasingly seen
as part of an organization's overall commitment to operating ethically.
Ombudsmen traditionally receive and investigate allegations of wrongdoing
by the public. Once the complaint is heard, it's investigated. The ombudsman
then determines if the complaint is valid and if so, prosecutes the complaint.
In addition, the ombudsman protects the citizen from the body being criticized.
That helps encourage people to come forward with their complaints without
fear of retaliation.
"We're kind of like a watchdog, although I don't like that term. I'm much
more of a watch-puppy," says recently retired government ombudsman Dulcie
Regardless of where ombudsmen work, they have to review each complaint
in light of the existing laws or policies. They decide whether any laws or
policies were breached. In some cases, they'll even determine if the law or
policy itself is fair.
"For instance, if the law says no woman can drive a car on Thursdays, you
can see on its face that it's unfair," McCallum says. But if a law were to
say all women and men must have a license to drive a car, that would be OK.
Gerald Porter was a journalist who later became an ombudsman for a press
"I think I would have been hard pressed to do this job 10 years ago," Porter
says. "The last 10 years have been interesting for me. I've gone through a
divorce, been department head [at a community college] a few times, and I've
had a serious injury.
"You know the saying: You have to walk a mile in my moccasins before you
understand me. It's easier to do this job now that I'm older."