What is an Ombudsman?

While governments and corporations have a responsibility to provide fair and equitable service, that does not always happen.

An Ombudsman is an office of “last resort”, usually independent and at arm’s length, to address and resolve complaints that people may have with how they were treated by a government, corporation or other organization.

Hydro One’s Ombudsman

Hydro One’s Ombudsman is an impartial, independent investigator who reviews and investigates complaints from the company’s customers and affected groups.

The Ombudsman reports directly to Hydro One’s independent Board of Directors.

Complaints are addressed through direct intervention and conflict mediation, working with the complainant and Hydro One employees. The Office is committed to fair, impartial, open, and equitable service, and to the vigorous and thorough review and resolution of complaints. If they cannot be resolved by the Ombudsman, customers can take their complaint to the company’s regulator, the Ontario Energy Board.

While the Office of Hydro One’s Ombudsman is new, over time, trends and patterns within the complaint process may reveal common or similar causes. These may require a broader investigation to resolve systemic problems in order to improve the quality of Hydro One services, to the benefit of the customer, the public, the company, and the shareholder.

What does the word “ombudsman” mean?

The word “ombudsman” is a Swedish term that means “representative of the people.” The first ombudsman was established in Sweden in 1809 to level the playing field between the citizen and the powers of government.

Other titles for ombudsman include: mediator, public protector, advocate, and citizens’ aide.

Some people dislike the word “man” in ombudsman, thinking this shows the gender bias seen in the terms “manpower” or “mankind.” The term ombudsman has a different origin. It comes from an old Swedish term, “umbuds man” meaning “representative of the people.”

Canada’s first ombudsman was appointed in 1967 in Alberta; however, the concept in Canada is much older. First Nations communities have long had a variety of mechanisms to mediate conflict between decision makers and the people.

History of the Ombudsman

The principle behind an ombudsman is in fact very old. Every day, the Muslim Mohtasib toured cities, towns, and marketplaces to resolve complaints and ensure that officials were acting morally and correctly and that customers were not being cheated. The Mohtasib had the authority to reverse an official order that they thought was unjust. The word Mohtasib comes from the term Hisba, or accountability, not only to your community, but to one’s self and before higher powers.

In ancient times, the Chinese had an institution known as the Censorate. Its mandate was to monitor government administration and detect any maladministration that threatened the rights of the people.

Many cultures in the Pacific offer similar examples. There is a practice in Hawaii known as Ho’oponopono, where respected elders resolve disputes according to principles of unity known as Lokahi. In Guam, the ombudsman is called the Suruhanu, a term meaning a wise and capable healer who has special capacities to resolve grievances.

The modern institution of the ombudsman started in Sweden in 1809 in order to strike a balance between the powers of the government and the rights of its citizenry. King Charles XII of Sweden first learned of the concept when he went in exile to Turkey after the Battle of Poltava in Russia. The concept of Qazi’ul’Quzat (“judge of judges”) had been developed in the Islamic law of the Ottoman Turks.

When King Charles returned to Sweden, he created the Office of Supreme Ombudsman to make government administrators more accountable. In 1809, a more powerful ombudsman was written into the Swedish Constitution – reporting to Parliament, not the leadership of the government. The ombudsman was designed to be a supervisory agency, independent of the executive branch of government, charged with the responsibility of protecting the rights of the people. It was not until a century and a half later that the Swedish model began to attract the attention of the English-speaking world.