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Transparency personified

Way back in October 2009 (centuries ago in internet years), Wes Trochlil blogged about an AMS vendor that installed an ombudsman on its staff to represent client concerns at the company. I want to revisit this ombudsman idea, because I've been intrigued by it for a while now. (In fact, it actually came up here once a few years ago, but only as a brief mention.)

If you have no idea what an ombudsman is, check out Wikipedia for a lengthy explanation, or see the bio page of Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander (a fellow Ohio University alum, I must note). Ombudsmen are a growing practice among newspapers, and Andy has written some remarkably frank, honest assessments of the Post's performance, such as this one about its plan for sponsored, off-the-record "salons" in 2009. Andy's columns are published in the newspaper every Sunday. The second paragraph of Andy's bio explains his role:

As The Washington Post ombudsman, he serves as its internal critic and represents readers who have concerns or complaints on a wide range of topics including accuracy, fairness, ethics and the newsgathering process. In his role, he also promotes public understanding of the newspaper, its Web site and journalism more generally. He operates under a contract with The Washington Post that guarantees him independence.[emphasis added]

Going back to Wes's post about the AMS vendor ombudsman, called the "Director of Customer Care," there's another important note about how the position is structured at the company in question, Aptify:

This position reports directly to [the CEO], and is not part of any other Aptify department.[again, emphasis added]

While an association is neither a newspaper nor a tech vendor, the concept of an ombudsman is one worth exploring for associations, whether in practice or at least in philosophy. If an association created an ombudsman position, perhaps the job description would read like this:

As Association XYZ ombudsman, he/she serves as its internal critic and represents members who have concerns or complaints on a wide range of topics including service quality, price, fairness, ethics, and the governance process. In this role, he/she also promotes public understanding of the association, its products and services, and membership more generally. He/she operates under a contract with Associations XYZ that guarantees him/her independence.

You could argue that this role could or should be filled by the association CEO or the board chair. Or perhaps the COO, the director of membership, or even the communications director. But mission and philosophy often fall by the wayside when an executive has a multitude of responsibilities or a vested interest in protecting his or her own job or department.

The ombudsman as a dedicated position, however, rises above a value statement simply by its very existence. An ombudsman embodies transparency because, essentially, transparency is his or her job. As long as the ombudsman position includes the factors I emphasized above—independence and separation from all departments—the act of creating such a position is a strong commitment to truth, honesty, transparency, and member service.

Knowing how afraid of transparency most associations seem to be, I don't see this idea getting a lot of traction, but in a more ideal world associations would be willing to make this kind of commitment to their members.

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Comments

Maybe I'm off base but it seems to me "ombudsman" and "community/social media manager" are very similar roles. The community/social media manager is responsible for gathering feedback--both positive and negative--from members and disseminating it to the appropriate staff members. He/she is also responsible for promoting public understanding of the association, its products and services and membership more generally via various social channels and online community platforms. Obviously the part about the contract doesn't apply...but the rest of sounds a lot like the job I do.

Responding to Maggie McGary's post, I do see a distinction between "ombudsman" and "community/social media manager." (Although, I will admit the idea of using the same individual, serving in both roles raises some interesting possibilities.)

The community/social media manager is certainly about communications, gathering feedback, ensuring proper understanding, and bringing the complaints and concerns of the members to the attention of the people who can resolve them.

The ombudsman has a more formal and powerful role. S/He is specifically empowered to pass judgments on the actions of the association/company/newspaper/whatever. S/He does more than just make the powers that be aware of problems; s/he is EXPECTED to tell management (even, or especially the boss) when the organization was wrong and to compel them to do something about it. While not having absolute authority, their adjudications are more than just suggestions. They do carry weight.

I am not sure how many associations give such power to community/social media managers ... or that the staff people currently serving in those roles are necessarilly the best equiped individuals for that job.

To build on what Maggie and Mark are saying, I see the ombudsman's role as being more reactive than that of a community manager--at least the ombudsmen whose columns I've read in the Post and the New York Times seem to respond to and investigates complaints and concerns, but don't necessarily seem to be out there looking for things to investigate. (But then, it's possible you could build an ombdudsman role that was more of a "free radical" looking for issues to investigate.)

I also think it would be hard to combine the ombudsman and community manager roles. A community manager's job involves a lot of teambuilding and outreach; you're looking to get buy-in and building a feeling of fellowship. A good ombudsman, on the other hand, is spending a lot of time pushing and critiquing others. To build on Maggie's example, it's the difference between seeing member feedback on Twitter, gathering it, and helping the appropriate staff to respond--and seeing that feedback on Twitter, investigating, and telling the appropriate staff where they've gone wrong. I think an association with good people filling both roles could do amazing work, but I think it would be hard for the same person to fill both roles.

Joe, thanks for the link to my post.

I agree with Lisa; I think there would be too much conflict between social media management and ombudsman activities to allow for both.

As I see it, the ombudsman role is to represent on behalf of the customer (in this case, the association members). And that would include "calling out" the association when they've made an egregious error. I don't think a social media manager should be playing that role.

I could see these roles blended, but as Lisa mentions, it would be a pretty big role.

Mark gets to the heart of the distinction between the two roles when he mentions the ombudsman's duty to tell organization leaders (and the public) that they're doing something wrong. "Calling them out," as Wes puts it.

Maggie, in your case, I'm wondering what would happen if you blogged or posted on Twitter or Facebook that something your association's CEO did was "an ethical lapse of monumental proportions." (Andy Alexander's description of the sponsored salons debacle.) Would you be comfortable making that kind of statement?

An ombudsman can say such things because his/her contract and the structure of the position guarantees immunity from repercussions for speaking the ugly truth. That's the key, and an organization that grants that kind of immunity makes a statement that it isn't afraid of handling criticism head on.

Maggie, you're right, however, that in today's age of social media, the ombudsman should be very savvy in all the various Web 2.0 tools and have a great skill for communicating within them. In fact, an organizational blog would probably the best place for an association ombudsman to communicate with members. So let's say your association decides to create an ombudsman; judging by your skill in communication and your rapport with members, you'd likely be the top candidate.

Also, on a related note, there is indeed an association for ombudsmen: the International Ombudsman Association. It has links right on its homepage to best practices, etc. for ombudsmen. A good resource for anyone interested in adopting the model.

American Mensa does have an Ombudsman and has for years. A recent member sponsored amendment to the Bylaws changed this position from a pseudo "appointment for life unless removed" Board appointment to one that is elected by representatives of the local groups(chapters) for a six year term.

The position can attend board meetings, is a part of our Board elist and in general is a "lurking" member of the board responding in a reactionary way to member or chapter concers.

In general, the position works well but I credit much of that to the current person who has the right mix of skills, training and personality to deal with this. It will be interesting to see what happens as this position changes in the coming year with the "election" of the new person in that role.

Our association is in the process of launching a multi-author blog. A small group of members who are active bloggers on other sites will contribute--along with a few staffers. The member contributors made it clear from the beginning that they need to feel free to (constructively) criticize the organization. I wonder if they can, informally, fulfill part of the role of ombudsman.

I wasn't meaning to imply I feel I should be ombudsman; merely that the job description sounds like what I do. Minus the power of an actual ombudsman, of course. ;)

Pam, great to hear American Mensa has an ombudsman. Sounds like something we might have to profile more in depth at some point in time. If it can work at one association, then there's some proof that it could work at others.

It's also interesting that you mention that the person has "the right mix of skills, training, and personality" for the role. I think that alludes to what Maggie and others have talked about here in that those skills and traits have a lot in common with those required for the role of a social media manager: good at listening, good at communicating, extremely knowledgeable about both internal affairs and the external environment, etc.

Sage, I think it's good that your volunteer bloggers have requested the freedom to speak freely, and I think it's great that your association will grant them that freedom. It sounds like your org has a strong commitment to honesty and transparency.

And that's the underlying goal of an ombudsman. If your association already has a strong commitment to honesty and transparency, from top to bottom, it doesn't need an ombudsman. But for others, creating an ombudsman position can be both a symbolic and practical way to bolster that commitment.

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