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Letter from Ombudsland

Early this month, over 400 Ombuds met in Denver for their annual conference and networking event. It was an excellent opportunity to meet colleagues from all over the world and to share best practices and benefit from an ongoing exchange of professional experience.

Twenty-seven countries were represented at the 2014 annual conference of the International Ombudsman Association. Participants came from the private sector as well as from various universities and organisations. Networking and exchanging experience with all the different colleagues was extremely interesting, in particular as there was also an opportunity to meet a few people who were amongst the pioneers in the field and had contributed significantly to developing the Ombuds' role and practices into the established professional body it is today.

The main focus of the conference was to review and underline the Ombuds' code of ethics and the common standards of practice, which are based on four basic principles, namely: confidentiality – everything that is discussed in the Ombuds' office remains confidential and is shared only with the express agreement of the persons concerned; informality – people should feel comfortable to come and speak about whatever concerns they may have because there are no rules about what can or cannot be discussed in the Ombuds' office and no records are kept; impartiality and neutrality – the Ombuds does not take sides or judge the concerns that are raised; and independence – the Ombuds does not belong to any specific department and reports directly to the Director-General, never sharing individual concerns but anonymously raising topics that appear to indicate symptoms or patterns that emerge so as to allow for appropriate action to be taken. These four principles were a constant leitmotif throughout - underlying all the presentations during the conference and equally emphasised in informal discussions between talks and during the evening networking sessions.

Although the types of situations faced by other Ombuds and the ways they deal with them are very similar to our experience at CERN, there were clearly also some aspects that were specific to our Organization, in particular with regard to our multicultural context, together with our culture of informality. These combined aspects mean that, for example, interactions between colleagues at CERN tend to be less regulated or ‘codified’, and rather more free and spontaneous in nature. While this is of course to be preserved as a very enriching part of our diverse work environment, it is also often a source of the communication difficulties brought to the Ombuds that may otherwise have been swept under the carpet of codified behaviour in more formal and established social structures. 

Another specificity of the role of the CERN Ombuds that emerged from the discussions was the fact that here we provide an informal conflict resolution resource for issues that arise from both the corporate and the academic work environments. This brings an enriching sort of variety to the role, which is quite distinct from that practised by the majority of participants at the conference.

Other sessions at the conference focussed on the many ways to manage different types of situations and a practical ‘toolbox’ offering a variety of problem-solving approaches in order to help people to analyse their own situations and identify options for addressing them.

Throughout the conference, it was clear that Ombuds all over the world share the same code of ethics and standards of practice regardless of the country in which they operate or whether they work in a governmental, corporate or academic environment. Indeed, it was very interesting to spend these few days in Ombudsland and to discover a very active community that operates on shared principles and to note that CERN is recognised as an established member of this growing professional body.

"Ombudsman offices exist for many reasons.
Sometimes managers and employees do not know exactly why
they feel concerned, but they need a safe place to go, to talk. Sometimes a person is concerned on someone else's behalf,
and needs to have options in a delicate situation.
Sometimes one sees a really good thing happening at work
and would like to know how to commend it."

Mary P. Rowe, ombudsperson, MIT, USA, pioneer in the field.