We are always on the lookout for policies or practices that exist in only a handful of governments, but appear to work very well.
A great example is the Iowa Ombudsman office. It’s only one of five state-administered organizations in the U.S that have broad jurisdiction to handle a wide variety of citizen problems. The other state ombudsman offices with broad jurisdiction are in Alaska, Nebraska, Arizona and Hawaii.
As we wrote in Governing in August 2016, many other governments have ombudsman offices in select agencies, often related to children services, special education, corrections or nursing home care. These specialized offices are proliferating.
But broad jurisdiction has significant plusses.
“The scope of our purview is the advantage,” says new Iowa ombudsman Kristie Hirschman. “The advantage of a classical, independent broadly-based ombudsman office is we can handle all types of complaints, whether it’s somebody calling because the city won’t pave their street, the county won’t give a building permit or the state is taking away their children.”
Her office was established in 1970 and has substantial investigatory powers, including the ability to put people under oath, issue subpoenas and look at meeting records from closed sessions. By statute, one of her assistant ombudsmen are devoted full-time to corrections.
Her office’s 2016 annual report came out this month and shows the scope of its work and also how very frustrating it can be, in some cases, for citizens or businesses to deal with government. In 2016, there was a substantial increase in both corrections and Medicaid managed care complaints. Although the total number of 2016 cases opened was up only about 3 percent, the number of corrections cases went up 22 percent and Department of Human Services Medical and managed care cases rose 63 percent. The rise in the latter stemmed from a shift to a new health delivery and payment system – Iowa moved to managed care Medicaid delivery in April of 2016.
Only about 13 percent of complaints brought to Hirschman’s office are fully or partially substantiated. Those that are, show the intense frustration that can sometimes occur when dealing with insensitive, hurried or unsupportive government officials.
Take the man who received a $215 bill from his city due to an overgrown lawn. There was no prior warning, no date as to when the violation had occurred, very little supporting detail and no information on how to appeal the bill, which he believed was levied incorrectly. When he called the city to complain, he was given the name of a person to call to discuss the matter. That was a dead-end, as that individual turned out to be on an extended leave.
Eventually, he called the ombudsman for help. One enormous plus of the Iowa office is that the phone line is not heavily automated. Callers reach a person they can talk with. Complaints do not need to be submitted in writing, either.
When the ombudsman’s office started investigating, the city could not explain how it arrived at a $215 charge, which was presumably levied for mowing the allegedly overgrown lawn. Photos by the work crew showed that only a small patch was overgrown, not the whole lawn. A city attorney agreed to refund all but $50. In addition, the inquiry led to changes in city practices. New rules added a requirement that prior warnings be given, that specific fees be explained, that residents be notified of their appeal rights and that a contact is provided for a resident who wants to follow up.
Although Hirschman was just appointed ombudsman in January, she has worked for the office for 22 years. She said a key way for agencies to avoid complaints was to provide clearer explanations of their actions and rules. “We’re all guilty to a degree,” she says. “We are so familiar with a subject that we forget other people aren’t familiar with it. Communication and patience is critical in regards to agency interactions with citizens they serve.”