Dear Dr Creutzfeldt
I have found your report of last December Critics of the ombudsman system: understanding and engaging online citizen activists regarding ombudsman watchers and would like to comment on it.
I am someone who has had many poor experiences of different ombudsmen over a long period.
I have several grave concerns with the study:
(i) It is taken on by an institution seen as much part of the establishment as the ombudsmen themselves – namely, Oxford University.
(ii) Your colleague is a former ombudsman employee
(iii) You “partner” with the PHSO, one of the most criticised ombudsmen
(iv) You had public money from a government funded council to look at government funded bodies; the Economic and Social Research Council has government staff (as well as business people) on its board, both of whose interests are vested in the status quo of ombudsmen
(v) You had to find watchers who were willing to attend a workshop – this may be seen as even a trap and many ombudsman whistleblowers would be wary of coming, especially given the above. Those who run watchers websites are a small proportion of those contributing to them or reading them, so this doesn’t feel very representative.
(vi) Your report is full of statements like “one said…”, “some felt…” – never anything substantial or specific. No cases and facts are mentioned.
(vii) Your remit was for the ombudsmen to understand how these groups work so that they can be “managed” and effectively, it’s implied, not allow them to interfere with the status quo, or “legitimacy”(para 2, p3).
Some comments on the summaries provided:
You summarise that the watchers “raise lack of clear themes”, yet in the same piece, note how detailed the watchers are in their ideas for ombudsman reform.
The watchers sites are full of details of cases and therefore strong first hand evidence of what is going wrong. Ombudsmen are a big part of so called just and equal society, publicly funded, so their abject failure should be of very great concern and a cause for immediate action.
I quote from p11 of your summary:
“Individual issues and unrealistic expectations. One participant (from a
scheme whose ombudsman watcher did not attend the workshop described
above) said there were no themes arising from the website concerned with his
organisation because it was focused on the personal experience of a single
individual. He said that as a result of the very individual nature of the criticisms
and the fact that these related to historic practices, there was little scope for
learning lessons in relation to possible service improvements.”
Why was this person’s views allowed to be recorded and take up half this section when they didn’t attend? Nothing here is substantiated. Of course the motivation to set up such sites is likely to be from personal experience; the high counts of hits shows that these resonate with a large number. What is the keenness to undermine the individual?
Perhaps the academic/social science aspect does not recognise individual experience, but it is that experience which is most poignant – the very real distress, suffering, anger, frustration, sense of not being heard, that there is no accountability and justice – is the heart of the problems that complainants have with ombudsman and with individuals have large organisations generally. The lack of humanity is one of the biggest criticisms.
That the ombudsmen felt that the effects of the watchers is ‘slight’ is really to be expected – it is in their interests to proclaim that these watchers do not do them any real damage.
‘Unrealistic expectations’ is a somewhat angering and again ironic response to the millions of people over a couple of decades who come to ombudsmen as the only reasonable way to fight their corner. They leave, some time later, with great frustration and disappointment.
As ombudsmen’s cases consist of individuals and small groups against large organisations, it is understandable that the people seek a champion. It seems that what actually is in place is a supporter of the large body that they have complained about.
I have known cases to be elongated which cause danger and even demise. I have seen one such case thrown out by an ombudsman for “insufficient suffering”!
I would like to ask if the researchers are aware of what it is like to bring a case to an ombudsman, the way the complaint process works, the responses of the ombudsman staff. The obtuseness or deliberate deflection and dishonesty is beyond belief. At every stage, the complainant is disadvantaged, controlled and kept at bay. I’d even say it’s deliberate dehumanising and demotivating.
Of course those who have not felt justice and closure will be unhappy, and yet you seem to agree that this somehow dilutes and disqualifies these complainants – who are the increasing majority.
This all seems to be missing from your study.
In your summary you took care to say “again this is not to suggest agreement with [the watchers’ critique” – implying, as throughout the piece, a greater solidarity with the ombudsmen.
Your summary spoke of ways that the watchers misunderstand the ombudsmen, yet it is far easier to level the opposite critique at this study, which discovers more about the people and workings of these groups. I note you speak of the “ombudsman community” – telling – but not of the watchers’ groups as a community.
Also, watchers are endeavouring to make grassroots changes as well as information and solidarity for the public; they are aiming for reform from outside, not within the ombudsman system, so that questions the rationale of the workshops.
I note this is one part of a three year funded project closing this year.
ADR is often not “alternative dispute resolution” for there is no sense of resolving for the individual, only an unsatisfying ending made by the other side. Those who attempt judicial review find further fault there – and those problems again lead back to ombudsmen.
This could’ve been an opportunity for change and scrutiny, but it really says little and feels on the side of the ombudsmen. I would like to ask that the remainder of your project and further research utilises the opportunity to reform and for a fairer society, not a reinforcement of the already unpalatable status quo.
Please note that this is an open letter.