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 aboveâ€”independence and separation from all departmentsâ€”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.