The Role of an Ombudsman in Strengthening Municipal Democracy
The institution of the ombudsman, first created in Sweden more than 200 years ago, is designed to provide protection for the individual where there is a substantial imbalance of power.
Initially, this imbalance was between the citizen and the state but as the institution has developed, it has embraced other sectors. Ombudsmen now exist, not just in the public sector, but also covering the private and independent sectors.
As well as considering complaints about public services, Ombudsman Association member schemes consider disputes between consumers and companies or between universities and students, for example.
However, in the private sector, coverage is fragmented and sparse with, in a very few cases, some duplication (where the ‘industry member’ can choose which scheme to belong to). None of this is ideal, but will require legislation to improve the situation as few sectors now readily establish schemes voluntarily.
What ombudsmen do
- Ombudsmen offer their services free of charge, and are thus accessible to individuals who could not afford to pursue their complaints through the courts.
- They are committed to achieving redress for the individual, but also, where they identify systemic failings, to seek changes in the work of the bodies in their jurisdiction, both individually and collectively.
- They can generally undertake a single investigation into multiple complaints about the same topic, thus avoiding duplication and excessive cost.
- They are neutral arbiters and not advocates nor “consumer champions”.
- They normally ask the body concerned and the complainant to try to resolve complaints before commencing an investigation.
- They usually seek to resolve disputes without resort to formal investigations where this is possible and desirable.
- Where they identify injustice, they seek to put this right.