Manchester Memorandum working seminar on the development of national Ombudsman institutions

Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

Earlier this month I was delighted to jointly host the Working Seminar on the Manchester Memorandum with the International Ombudsman Institute (IOI). The event brought together representatives from Ombudsman organisations, both in person and online, for a vibrant discussion on the development of national Ombudsman institutions.

Exploring leadership challenges

In May, PHSO published the Art of the Ombudsman which explored leadership challenges faced by Ombudsman schemes during the COVID pandemic and how to navigate them.

The working seminar was a timely opportunity to look at this further. Manchester Memorandum delegates from over 30 countries around the world had vibrant discussions on:

  • reaching vulnerable and marginalised communities
  • developing competency frameworks
  • peer review and the Venice Principles
  • branding and the term ‘Ombudsman’

Ombudsman colleagues shared their challenges and innovative ideas on these topics in a collaborative spirit.

Reaching vulnerable and marginalised communities

Colleagues from the Netherlands, Pakistan and Israel shared their experiences of reaching vulnerable and marginalised communities. A clear theme was that we’re most needed by those with least power and limited resources. Delegates agreed that Ombudsman services should play a more proactive role in upholding people’s rights and reaching those most in need.

We discussed the importance of creating opportunities to listen and interact with people on issues that matter to them. As one colleague said: “We can’t do that sitting in our offices”. Ideas about how we can do this better included:

  • running drop-in clinics
  • reaching out through community networks and advocacy groups
  • translating information about our service into different languages
  • hiring more diverse staff.

There were some challenging conversations about terminology, with colleagues highlighting the need to think about marginalisation and vulnerability as being fluid and context dependent. The impact COVID has had on many individuals is a striking example of this.

Developing competency frameworks

The Ombudsman Association presented their competency framework, specifically aimed at caseworkers. Competencies are built on a foundation of technical knowledge and organisational awareness. The framework sets out that an effective caseworker is analytical, impactful, approachable, professional, open-minded and constructive. It supports skills-based recruitment and is available for use by all ombudsman schemes.

Peer review and the Venice Principles

The Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman shared how we might use peer review as a tool to monitor compliance with the Venice Principles. These are key international standards for ombudsman services. They talked about the benefits of peer review - it provides independent evidence, it’s less resource intensive and less costly. They also suggested that Ombudsman organisations are more likely to listen to their peers and implement their recommendations.

The Office of the Ombudsman for New Zealand presented how ombudsman schemes can use self-assessment tools as part of a peer review to look at all aspects of their organisation. Colleagues agreed that we need tools that will push our services to improve and many agreed peer review was a positive tool for this.

Branding and the term ‘Ombudsman’

The final session explored the language and impact of the term ‘Ombudsman’. The Northern Ireland Public Service Ombudsman and Scottish Public Service Ombudsman shared their views that the term is outdated, inaccessible, gendered and thus problematic. They felt that using gender neutral language could create more opportunities for women and girls, who are currently underrepresented in the Ombudsman community.

Colleagues discussed the importance of the brand and history of the term ‘Ombudsman’, which in its original Swedish is a gender-neutral term. Interestingly, the Ombudsman for Northern territories in Canada said they use the most appropriate translation for each of the indigenous communities they represent, for example, ‘Protector of the Citizen’.

Several colleagues highlighted the importance of recognition and accessibility – making sure that whatever term we use, people understand who the Ombudsman is and what they do. As the session Chair, Public Services Ombudsman of Wales, said: "As society changes, this issue will not go away. We will see change in the future - but perhaps we're not yet at the tipping point."

Towards Athens 2022

As I said in the Art of the Ombudsman, “the pandemic, ‘like the shadow of a great mountain’, will pass. Change is in the air. It is time to prepare”. The working seminar gave the international ombudsman community the perfect opportunity to do this.

I am grateful to Ombudsman colleagues from around the world for joining us in Manchester and for their valuable contributions to take on the important challenges the sector faces in a post-COVID world.

I am particularly grateful to Chris Field, President of the IOI, and Andreas Pottakis, European President of the IOI, for their continued support and strong endorsement for PHSO to have access to ‘safe space’ in UK health investigations, which was reiterated at the seminar.

Recordings of the seminar will be available shortly to IOI members. A report and action plan coming out of the event will feed into discussions at the next IOI conference taking place in Greece in 2022. I look forward to joining colleagues there to take this work forward.