I have just returned from two days at a local conference. It is always refreshing to be able to attend a useful conference in your home town, where the travel expense is my bus fare of five dollars. It is even better when the conference contains detailed and useful presentations and new learning experiences, and I am pleased to say that I also had the opportunity to meet friends and colleagues and meet new ombudsman who are relatively close to where I live.
ANZOA is an association of governmental and industry ombudsman in Australia and New Zealand. They have a biennial conference which is well attended by ombudsman and senior members of staff from most of the ombudsman offices in both countries, and there were close to 100 registrants.
The theme of the conference was “Ombudsmen rising to the challenge: What Lies Ahead? There was a conscious effort to structure the papers and presentations on the theme of looking at current issues and challenges, and what the future holds.
The conference opened, as to most important meetings in New Zealand with a traditional Maori welcome and waiata. This is particularly apt in the context of the location of the conference, at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. This museum celebrates the role of the Maori as the indigenous people of New Zealand and recognises the significance of the Treaty of Waitangi and establishing the partnership between Maori and subsequent settlers, which has come to be a founding constitutional document. In constitutional and governmental decision-making, there is often a reference to recognition of treaty principles, which can be summarised as a requirement of fair dealing between Maori as the indigenous people, and the subsequent settlers. So any concept with fairness included,makes this particularly suitable for a conference for ombudsman.
As the ICANN ombudsman I walk between the two different silos of ombudsman. At the Denver IOA conference earlier in April, I met and had conversations with organisational ombudsman, many of whom work within universities and education institutes, and also with corporate ombudsman typically from larger multinational companies. At ANZOA the ombudsman are mostly classical ombudsman and industry ombudsman, appointed by Federal or State governments and reporting to Parliaments or as the industry ombudsman typically reporting to a supervisory board from industry leaders. ICANN is different from both of these models, but I am privileged to learn from both groups. There does not seem to be much mutual understanding of what each group is doing. In Australia and New Zealand there has been vigorous protection and restriction on the use of the name ombudsman, to the extent that in New Zealand, it is restricted specifically by statute. ANZOA on its website refers to the need for protection for the name “ombudsman”. At the IOA conference, by contrast, the ombudsmen appeared to have little knowledge of institutions such as the International Ombudsman Institute based in Vienna Austria, but were sometimes passionate about the need to restrict membership of the Association to organisational ombudsman, which would exclude the classical and industry ombudsman. As a relatively new ombudsman, I struggle with the artificial distinctions which both groups draw up to exclude each other.
The theme I found was that at both conferences they are talking about many of the same issues. They have far more in common than is discussed. For example, IOA has the IOA Ethical principles
The Ombudsman is independent in structure, function, and appearance to the highest degree possible within the organization.
Neutrality and Impartiality
The Ombudsman, as a designated neutral, remains unaligned and impartial. The Ombudsman does not engage in any situation which could create a conflict of interest.
The Ombudsman holds all communications with those seeking assistance in strict confidence, and does not disclose confidential communications unless given permission to do so. The only exception to this privilege of confidentiality is where there appears to be imminent risk of serious harm.
The Ombudsman, as an informal resource, does not participate in any formal adjudicative or administrative procedure related to concerns brought to his/her attention.
ANZOA refers to the Six Benchmarks
Benchmark 1 – Accessibility
Benchmark 2 – Independence
Benchmark 3 – Fairness
Benchmark 4 – Accountability
Benchmark 5 – Efficiency
Benchmark 6 – Effectiveness
So there are clearly many features and goals in common.
A theme of the conference was ways in which ombudsman could evolve to meet further alternative dispute resolution challenges, and meet competition from other providers. The New Zealand Ombudsman Dame Beverly Wakem concluded in her final remarks that there are initiatives to get the various groups of ombudsman to communicate better and more often.
There will continue to be different flavours of ombudsman, because each office has its own mission statement and objects. The leaders will also add their own personalities and opinions to how the office operates. But what has impressed me in moving between both groups, is the dedication, professionalism and real human concern for the visitors to our ombudsman offices. We heard from people like Simon Cohen, the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman for Australia, who presented a thoughtful and humane approach to dealing with consumers and financial difficulty, and who has evolved a model which has a real understanding, both of the needs of the industry players and of the consumers. Hilary Unwin from the New Zealand Human Rights Commission gave a presentation on meeting the needs of those with disabilities and asked real questions about their access to us as ombudsman. Many other speakers made it clear they have real action for access to fairness and justice and a strong commitment to principles of human rights. I would say that the IOA members have that same commitment, albeit on different stages.
My hope is that we recognise each others differences but grow to accept the stronger goals and principles in common, which would enable us to draw from each others learning and experience.