What is an ombudsman?
Ombudsmen are volunteers appointed by the Commanding Officer to serve as an information link between the command leadership and command families. Ombudsmen are trained to disseminate information, including official Department of the Navy and command information, command climate issue and local quality of life improvement opportunities around the community. They also provide resource referrals when needed and can be instrumental in resolving family issues before they require extensive command attention.
Command ombudsmen are part of the command support team. The roles and responsibilities of the command ombudsman include:
- Serve as a liaison between command families and the command.
- Keep the command leadership informed regarding the morale, health and welfare of command families
- Communicate regularly with the command and command families
- Contact families upon arrival to introduce themselves and explain how they can be of help to the family
- Develop and distribute command-approved monthly newsletter
- Maintain an up-to-date list of resources and support organizations available to Navy families
- Serve as a source of emergency and crisis information
- Represent the command at local Ombudsman Assembly meetings
- Avoid conflict of interest
- Maintain confidentiality
- Coordinate services for command families during mobilization or geographic separation.
It is the ultimate goal of the command ombudsman to empower family members to help themselves. Ombudsmen responsibilities do not include:
- Providing child care
- Transporting people
- Lending money
- Allowing people to stay with them in their home
- Doing for others what they must learn to do for themselves
Confidential information vs. non-confidential information
Confidential information is sensitive information about a service member or family member. It is kept within the commanding officer’s designated network and is for official use only. Command ombudsmen are required to adhere to the strictest code of confidentiality to protect the privacy of individuals. Types of confidential information ombudsmen may hear include:
- Marital problems
- Substance abuse issues
- Financial difficulties
- Parenting challenges
- Work performance issues
- Violations of law
- Mental health disorders
- Medical issues
- Domestic issues
- Suicidal or homicidal behaviors
Family members may contact the command ombudsman to ask for information, guidance, and referrals, or they may just want to discuss their concerns with a caring person. An ombudsman does not share these private concerns with anyone – including their spouse, other members of the command support team, or assistance agencies – without the approval of their commanding officer (CO) or the caller.
It is important to understand that not all communication with an ombudsman is confidential, and some information is required to be disclosed to the proper authority. This information is called “reportable”. Reportable information involves situations in which someone’s safety and well-being are at stake. All Department of the Navy personnel, including ombudsmen (with the exception of chaplains and attorneys who have privileged communication), are MANDATED reporters. Navy instruction requires ombudsmen to report:
- All suspected or known child abuse/neglect.
- Alleged domestic abuse.
- Suspected or potential homicides, violence, or life-endangering situations
- All suspected or potential suicidal risks.
Training is an important factor of a successful Ombudsman Program. Trained ombudsmen are better able to enhance the readiness of Navy families. Ombudsmen are required to complete an initial 16.5 hours of basic training. The training consists of 9 modules that equip ombudsmen with the foundational knowledge and skills necessary to properly execute their duties required by OPNAVINST 1750.1F.
The basic training ensures that families receive a standardized level of services throughout the Navy. On-going training enables them to stay abreast of changes in programs and services, and to become familiar with new programs and services available to service members and their families. All ombudsmen are required to complete advanced training throughout the year.
In addition to basic and advanced training, ombudsmen are required to regularly attend bi-monthly assemblies, which provide a forum for sharing and exchanging information, resources, and best practices.
Ombudsman code of ethics
The code of ethics is the essential foundation upon which an ombudsman's credibility is established and maintained. Ombudsmen are committed to strict adherence to the code, which includes:
- Maintaining confidentiality
- Supporting the command’s mission
- Working within the chain of command as directed
- Maintaining the highest standards of professionalism
History of the Navy Family Ombudsman Program
The Navy Family Ombudsman Program enables service members to be more focused and productive at work because their families have a safety net. The Navy’s philosophy of developing healthy, self-reliant families is epitomized through the Navy Family Ombudsman Program. The ombudsman concept originated in Scandinavian countries, where they investigated citizens’ complaints against the government or its functionaries. Today, the concept is widely used in the fields of government, business, and healthcare.
On September 14, 1970, Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., Chief of Naval Operations, established the Navy Family Ombudsman Program when he issued Z-Gram 24. It emphasized the importance of Navy spouses and established a procedure that gave spouses the opportunity to present complaints, viewpoints, and suggestions to the commanding officer. In doing so, he acknowledged the vital role spouses play as members of the Navy team and provided them with what he described as an “official representative to express their view to commanding officers and base commanders.”
In 2007, CNO Adm. Michael G. Mullen re-emphasized the importance of the program, signing an updated instruction and highlighting the requirement that all Navy families have access to a Navy Family Ombudsman.