NSU professor part of federal ombuds study

Study examines value of ombuds in federal agencies

CAHSS Professor Neil Katz, Ph.D., is one of the head researchers that has been working on a major research study examining the nature and value of ombuds in federal agencies.

Neil Katz

The study, commissioned by the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS), an independent government agency, is a reappraisal of an earlier report on ombuds issued in 1990. The original report recommended that agencies with significant public interaction make use of ombuds.

But what, exactly, is an ombuds?

An ombuds, or ombudsman, is an independent position that investigates complaints and attempts to resolve them with mediation. At the federal level, ombuds can be externally facing to investigate complaints from citizens, or internally facing to investigate complaints from employees within agencies. Some serve hybrid roles that are both internal and external. Ombuds are also utilized in the private sector and in higher education.

“Ombuds are among the groups of federal employees that are most trusted, and they’re the voice of ordinary citizens,” said Katz, a professor in the Department of Conflict Resolution Studies.

Katz cites the example of the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate, an independent office that assists taxpayers undergoing hardships in resolving conflicts with the IRS.

“They’re a human voice in negotiating with the IRS,” Katz said. “Without an ombuds, the IRS is very intimidating.”

There are several organizations relating to ombuds, including the Coalition of Federal Ombudsmen, the U.S. Ombudsman Association, and the International Ombudsman Organization. The 18-month ACUS project concluded that there should be clarity and uniformity in defining the purpose and standards of ombuds at the federal level. It also recommended that steps be taken to ensure ombuds can continue their core standards of practice: independence, neutrality, and confidentiality.

Katz said the recommendations in the report will be presented to the entire membership of ACUS in December to consider what will be passed along to Congress. A new Congress will be sworn in in January, and implementation of any recommendations will fall to the incoming administration of President-elect Donald J. Trump.

Katz and the other head researchers are unsure how the change in administration might affect the implementation of recommendations in the coming year.

"If the election proved anything, it certainly provides ample evidence to the lack of trust that numerous Americans have in our government and institutions in general. The use of ombuds in our federal government, and institutions in general including higher education and the private sector, can ameliorate some of this concern,” Katz said. “I believe they can play an essential role for our country and our inhabitants in this critical time."

Outside of his research, Katz is teaching two courses this semester: Human Factors: Interpersonal Communication and Conflict Resolution Skills, and Conflict Management in Groups: Covert and Overt Dynamics. Next semester, he teaches Negotiation Strategy and Skills, and Organizational Conflict Intervention (with a concentration on organizational ombuds).