International Ombudsman Association Conference at Houston

20 April 2012
By Office of the Ombudsman

I have just attended the 7th Annual conference of the International Ombudsman Association in Houston, Texas. This is an organisation mainly for organisational ombudsman, or as many prefer to say ombuds, being perceived as gender neutral. The conference ran for three days and has about 300 attendees who come from primarily the United States. Because of the emphasis on organisational ombudsman, most of the attendees are from within corporate organisations and typically universities. There were a few international attendees, and a good contingent from the United Nations.

The first day opened with an address from an international authority, Professor David Yamada, who teaches on the subject of bullying and has written many articles and books on the academic study of bullying. Although this applies primarily to organisational ombudsman, he emphasised the role of the ombudsman in dealing with such behaviour. It is not one of the major sources of complaints to my office, although it is quite possible that groups may feel that actions taken by others do constitute bullying.  But as an academic application of the use of ombudsman techniques he gave a thoughtful and useful presentation. His address is at http://newworkplace.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/workplace-bullying-and-the-ombudsman/

The next session was a discussion on the role of the Association. There is a tension between its role seen as primarily for organisational ombudsman and whether it truly can be called an international organisation, particularly reflecting on the small numbers of overseas members and attendees at the conference. There does seem to be a fairly common view that the association should primarily be for  organisational ombudsman, but an equal number appeared to want to be more inclusive. In the previous year a motion to have classes of membership was defeated, and the board of the Association is continuing to consider appropriate ways to encourage membership but also to balance the classes of members and potential members.

Following the session I attended a number of smaller sessions on issues such as understanding cultural patterns across conflict styles, and increasing the utilisation of ombuds offices across global or multisite operations. This last session is of particular interest to the ICANN ombudsman because of our global reach. There was much to think about.

The keynote address on Tuesday was from Michael Dues on the ombudsman's role in advancing the organisation towards Better Conflict Management. He was formerly an academic in the area of conflict management, and also an ombudsman. Despite an attempt to retire, he is still studying and lecturing on the role of an ombudsman and conflict management, and reflected on the role within the University. He reminded us of the need to maintain collected wisdom from such experienced ombudsman, who can use the academic knowledge and practical application of skills in such an impressive fashion.

The afternoon sessions on Tuesday included a session on the different sectors including international ombudsman. I attended the session to listen to the discourse and stories from colleagues in many varied roles.

Wednesday had two very impressive speakers. The first of these speakers was Sherry Williams from Halliburton. Her background is of a lawyer practising in the employment relations area and then moving to the role of Compliance Officer with Halliburton. She is a strong advocate for the role of an ombudsman in a large multinational company particularly in relation to some of the more difficult problems experienced by her company in the past. She was quite open about the substantial fines incurred by her company for unethical behaviour, but identified the substantial changes made to ethical guidelines and compliance which have greatly reduced problems across the board at Halliburton. Another good example is the greatly decreased costs of employee litigation which she identifies as a key indicator of success, especially in the eyes of senior management.

The second impressive speaker was Johnston Barkat who is an Assistant Director General at the United Nations where he is in charge of their ombudsman and mediator teams. He began by telling us about 2 current areas where their teams are working, Sudan and the Middle East. He shared the story about an Israeli teacher who became distressed at the rhetoric about war between Israel and Iran, and started a Facebook page where he reached out to the Iranians and sent a message that he did not want war and that he loved Iran. The posts have gone viral and shared by Iranians who have started their own Facebook pages with the same message. So in the middle of all of the sabre rattling people are reaching out to each other for peace. Johnston then developed this to a challenge for ombudsmen to reach out and start their own initiatives within their own practice. He argued that we must reach out rather than be proactive in our search for fairness. Altogether this was inspiring and something of a wake up call.

The afternoon brought an introduction to the Culture Bump programme.  This can be seen in full at http://culturebump.com/index.php but is a programme to educate people about cultural differences. At ICANN we have the world talking to us and awareness of different cultural responses is critical to our communication. I hope to introduce this in some fashion, and will consider how to do so.

In between the sessions I met many wonderful colleagues-you know who you are! The networks of friends and colleagues will be of huge advantage for peer support and understanding. All in all this was a most successful conference.


Office of the Ombudsman