For as long as government has existed, guaranteeing citizens fair and equitable treatment under the law has been an issue and various protections have been utilized over the years. In modern times the public sector Ombudsman, where instituted, has been a successful and valuable guarantor of citizens’ rights. By impartial and independent investigation of citizens’ complaints, it has provided an informal and accessible avenue of redress.
The first public sector ombudsman (OM-budz-man, -buhdz-, -boodz-) was appointed by the Parliament of Sweden of 1809. The Swedish Constitution divided and balanced power between the king and Parliament with the king having executive powers and Parliament retaining legislative power. The ombudsman, who was appointed by and responsible to Parliament, was to protect individual rights against the excesses of the bureaucracy.
This first ombudsman’s office, since its creation, has been the model for the public sector ombudsman, and set the definition that is still accepted today: a public official appointed by the legislature to receive and investigate citizen complaints against administrative acts of government. These acts may or may not include the administrative acts of the judiciary or the legislature, depending upon the statute.
The ombudsman concept spread through Europe, and to this continent with the first offices being established in the United States in the mid 60’s. This was a time in the United States when exposure of government secrecy and scandal, and when movements such as civil rights and good government created a political atmosphere more favorable to openness, and to establishing recourse for the aggrieved.
Hawaii established the first public sector office in 1967. Since then a number of states, counties and municipalities have followed suit by establishing offices of general jurisdiction.
The ombudsman movement in the United States has also been characterized by offices that represent a departure from the Swedish model. These variations would include offices with general jurisdiction but appointment by a governor or mayor, legislative offices with special jurisdiction such as corrections, and single agency ombudsman with statutory authority.