Ombudsman Qualities

Howard Gadlin

Ombudsman, Center for Cooperative Resolution, National Institutes of Health

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Generally what sort of personal qualities do you think would behoove someone in a position of an ombudsman?

A: You know, it is a funny field because there is no specific disciplinary background people need. So the whole range, I mean there are people who come out of a psychological counseling background, people come out of administrative HR background; people come out of law backgrounds. And others, I know nurses; I know historians, theologians, a variety of different backgrounds. And there are a lot of very different interpretations of the role. Because when you are doing this kind of work it is a very intimate kind of work so you are the tool of your work it is not just some transferable set of techniques that any, I mean there are some techniques that are in common but it is not just the application of a technique. I think one does need to be a fairly independent person.

You have to be prepared to be in an organization and to have very strong constraints of the degree to which you can get close to people in the organization in a personal sense because you too easily could wind up compromising when it comes to having to do your work. So you have to expect, you know one of my jokes when I talk to groups about being ombudsman is you have to be able eat lunch alone. So there is that. And you have to not be cowed by authority and I have seen people floundered who were unable to sort of stand up as an equal to people in power and who wound up in their attempt at being ombudsmen really replicating the power dynamics of the organization. Ombudsmen can't be that kind of person. They have to be someone who can see through power and stand up to it in some sense, not be intimidated, not need to be liked for everything that they do. But at the same time caring enough about how they're received to want to be seen in a positive light because your intent is to address the interests of all of the parties involved.

So you have to be seen as responsive to people's interests and caring about them but not capitulating to them on the basis of their status. Having a sense of humor helps at least for yourself, you know. An ability to be fairly self-reflective and critical. Knowing how to listen. A very broad range of tolerance for a variety of different people and a willingness to respond positively even to people who represent values or positions or ideologies or styles that you find objectionable in the rest of your life.