Professional licensing boards: “A wall of secrecy”

Last week, we highlighted the work of the Iowa ombudsman office, one of only five state ombuds offices with broad statewide jurisdiction. With its broad purview, it can spot, investigate and report on troubling issues.  And here’s a powerful case in point, emanating from winter of 2017, when the ombudsman published a biting special report about Iowa’s professional licensing boards. We suspect legislation will follow next session.


Iowa has 36 licensing boards covering a wide variety of medical professionals, as well as barbers, landscape architects, massage therapists, plumbers, water treatment operators, sign language interpreters, and many others. They are generally in charge of creating the requirements for entry into a profession, but they also are responsible for policing that profession and dealing with citizen complaints.


The ombudsman found those citizens often get little satisfaction.


Substantive cases revealed very similar frustrations. “Not only had the boards failed to take action against the professionals they complained about, but the boards also offered no meaningful explanations for their decision.”


Here’s the entire answer that one complainant received:


“The Board has ended its investigation and closed the matter, with no further action to be taken. This was done in consultation with the Iowa Attorney General’s office, during this week’s board meeting.”


Typically, there was not a word as to the nature of the investigation or the reason no action was taken. According to the special report, “People who file complaints in the genuine belief that they were wronged never learn the basis of a board’s dismissal.”


We can understand the need for confidentiality in a professional licensing board’s investigation, as does the ombudsman’s office. Professionals need protection from investigations that would unfairly damage their reputation. Typically, cases are heard in closed sessions to protect licensees’ privacy.


But the report found that the closed nature of deliberations had resulted in sloppy practices. With a focus on four unnamed boards, the report slams repeated instances of questionable, even biased, board behavior. Boards ignored conflict of interest provisions, took no minutes of closed-door sessions, destroyed records, and failed to follow up on investigatory leads. Full boards often rubber stamped recommendations to dismiss complaints without due consideration.


The report has a hard-hitting conclusion. “We strongly believe that the environment in which these boards have been allowed to exist – behind closed doors – has fostered uninspired work and unprofessional conflict . . . In short, it has been a system unaccountable.”


Fittingly, the ombudsman quotes from the 18th Century writings of Thomas Paine. “A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.”

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