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What They Do

Insider Info

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 ombudsman.

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 McCallum.

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 council.

"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."

At a Glance

Hear complaints and find ways to resolve problems

  • All kinds of organizations are using ombudsmen
  • Many ombudsmen are former police officers, lawyers and judges
  • Consider a legal education and get lots of experience