Critics of the Ombudsman System: Understanding and Engaging Online Citizen Activists
December 2015
by Naomi Creutzfeldt & Chris Gill


Executive Summary
• This policy brief presents the outcomes and recommendations from an ESRC
IAA 1 funded knowledge exchange project on activist consumer groups
(‘ombudsman watchers’).
• Two workshops were held to explore the activities and significance of these
‘ombudsman watchers’ who are using the Internet and social media to protest
about the operation of ombudsman schemes.
• The workshop with the ombudsman watchers covered the nature of their
critique of ombudsman schemes; and the goals of their campaigns, the methods
used to achieve them, and the responses they had obtained from ombudsman
schemes and others.
• The aim of the workshop with the ombudsman schemes was to discuss what
they felt the issues to be and how they had interacted with the ombudsman
watchers operating in their area.
• Many of the issues raised by the ombudsman watchers touch upon important
and widely recognised dilemmas for the ombudsman institution. These matters
are likely to continue to be controversial and, perhaps, require a clearer and
more coherently developed position amongst the wider ombudsman
• At the same time, the critiques put forward by the ombudsman watchers may
highlight the way in which the public misunderstands the role of ombudsman
schemes and may be indicative of an apparent gap between public expectation
and what ombudsman schemes are set up to provide.
• Some ombudsman schemes had been very proactive in terms of engagement.
However, it is not clear whether, from an ombudsman scheme’s perspective,
engagement is likely to result in learning for service improvement. There was
variation in the degree to which ombudsman schemes had found the critiques
of ombudsman watchers constructive and useful and to what extent those
critiques had informed service improvements and resulted in meaningful
• The influence of ombudsman watchers and the degree to which they should be
engaged with is likely to remain a troubling issue for ombudsman schemes.
This involves balancing the need to address negative publicity and the desire to
draw lessons from the experiences of dissatisfied complainants, at the same
time as recognizing that this risks privileging potentially unrepresentative