Deliberating Dilemmas: Coverage of Services in the Face of a Conflict of Interest

By Bryan Hanson, EdD

Ombudsperson, Graduate School at Virginia Tech
Independent Voice Blog Editor

What should a single-person ombuds office do when a member of their community contacts the ombuds office about a matter, but the ombuds determines that they have a conflict of interest in working with that individual? 

An inquiry of just this type was recently raised with the IOA by an individual that encountered that situation with their ombuds. In this case, the ombuds told the individual that they could not provide assistance to them. The Ombuds apparently did not explain the basis for the conflict of interest nor suggested any other means to provide assistance to the individual who considered themselves one of the constituents served by the ombuds office. The individual contacted IOA because they thought that the ombuds may have acted improperly and wanted to raise the issue with the IOA. Since the ombuds involved in this situation is not COOP certified and there is no relevant procedure for investigating the conduct of non-certified IOA members, it was established there is no basis for the IOA to become involved. 

The dilemma presented in this case surely is not unique. While it is likely not appropriate in most situations to disclose to an individual the basis for the conflict of interest, is there nothing that the ombuds can do to help an individual receive assistance? Because this may be a recurring problem for single-person ombuds offices, we thought we would offer a suggestion here that an ombuds may want to consider and invite IOA members to suggest other possible options. 

The specific reason for a conflict of interest does not change this dilemma. Conflict of interests may arise due to personal connections with the situation at hand, the multiple role expectations that may be compromised if an ombuds were to engage in the situation, or result due to any scope limitations that may be embedded in the structure of the ombuds role.  Because it is foreseeable that a conflict of interest may occur for any of these reasons, or for some other reason that would preclude a single-person ombuds office from assisting a visitor, the ombuds may want to have a plan in place to address the situation. 

One example of a strategy for this scenario may be to refer the individual to other resources in the organization that may be useful in this situation. Alternatively, the ombuds may wish to explore whether an ombuds in another organization might be available on a reciprocal basis to provide "coverage" where there is a conflict of interest.  It may also be possible to arrange for the retention of an external or contract ombuds to provide coverage. This will usually involve more than just an informal agreement to provide "coverage" where there is a conflict of interest; dealing with this issue will also likely involve confidentiality agreements and compensation for time. Ultimately, this is a systemic issue that an ombuds could address with their organization to see what arrangements can be made to stay in line with the intentions for providing these services.    

The solutions presented here may work well in many situations but there may be other approaches that could be considered. We hope with this post to hear from our practitioners who have found themselves, potentially may find themselves in this dilemma, or simply have thoughts that would benefit this conversation. From your perspective we ask you to consider the following questions:

  • How do you feel about the solutions proposed?
  • What are some additional strategies that could be established to provide coverage for constituents that need ombuds services, but are unable to access them due to a conflict of interest?

I ask you to consider this dilemma and provide your thoughts in the comments section below.

If you find this type of engagement helpful to your work as practitioners, we invite contributions for future posts to provide an opportunity to deliberate dilemmas we may face in our work as ombuds. Please send your thoughts and ideas to [email protected].






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Comments on "Deliberating Dilemmas: Coverage of Services in the Face of a Conflict of Interest"

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Ronnie Thomson - Monday, February 21, 2022

Are you looking over my shoulder, Bryan? I have been hypothetically pondering this exact dilemma. From 2013-2020, I practiced in a multiple ombuds office and felt confident that if a visitor and I had a conflict of interest, I could easily refer to a colleague. I am now a solo practitioner again, as I was from 2001-2012, and wonder what I might do. My thought, not yet implemented, is to ask a sister Ombuds Office if we could collaborate. Could one of their staff be a referral? What would be the arrangement? We would have details to work out, yet that seems to be a potential option. While a solo ombuds in the past, I did reveal a potential conflict of interest, or at least the likelihood that my own bias could influence our conversation because the visitor's issue surrounded an HR policy that I had championed in my prior career with that organization. Once disclosed, the visitor decided to remain with me. With that experience, I tend to believe that disclosure is an option and the choice is with the visitor. Thank you for posting about this important topic.

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