The term “ombudsman” is derived from the Swedish word meaning agent or representative. For as long as governments have existed, there has always been a parallel concern for the fair and equitable treatment of citizens and a guarantee that their rights are protected. The first public sector ombudsman was appointed by the Parliament of Sweden in 1809 with the express charter to protect individual citizen’s rights against the excesses of government bureaucracy. The ombudsman was to receive and investigate citizen complaints against administrative acts of the government. The ombudsman concept spread across Europe and then to the United States in the 1960s. This was partly in response to the civil rights movement and citizen efforts for more openness in politics and government activities.
Typically, an ombudsman is a non-partisan, neutral, fact-finding person or office that takes no side in a dispute, but rather recommends solution. However, in broader usage, the term has come to mean more than just an agent or representative, but can also refer to an advocate or trustee who looks after the interests of a particular group or class of persons, and therefore serves as an agent of justice.
Within the United States, the term has taken on broader meaning that represents departure from the original Swedish model. While denoting an intermediary serving between citizens and the government, the term is now also used to describe any machinery adopted by private organizations (e.g., educational institutions of higher learning, large business corporations) or government to investigate complaints of administrative abuses. They may be been vested with general or special jurisdiction over specific governmental functions (e.g., corrections), and may exercise advocacy in their recommendations, if granted such authority.
Throughout federal and state governments today, public ombudsmen offices have been specially created (by legislative, executive, or judicial authority) to act as independent agencies monitoring the delivery of government services to certain populations (e.g., the elderly, disabled, juveniles, incarcerated adults, government employees, etc.) An ombudsman is generally independent (although a government employee), impartial, universally accessible, and empowered only to assess and make recommendations. The American Bar Association (ABA) defines an ombudsman as “a government official who hears and investigates complaints by private citizens against government agencies.”