Look Diligently into Every Affair: Ombuds in State Government

At the Levin Center, we often quote a description of legislative oversight that the Supreme Court borrowed from Woodrow Wilson: “It is the proper duty of a representative body to look diligently into every affair of government and to talk much about what it sees. It is meant to be the eyes and the voice, and to embody the wisdom and will of its constituents.” 

It is a tall order to “look diligently into every affair of government.” That was true when Woodrow Wilson wrote those words in 1885, and it is even more true today. Society has grown more complex, and the affairs of government have grown with it. So, too, have the tools for oversight in state legislatures, such as expanded member staff and what we often call analytic bureaucracies or oversight partners

Analytic bureaucracies and oversight partners are the people and institutions – typically non-partisan – that support legislative oversight. Auditors and inspectors general, fiscal offices, and comptrollers can all fall into this category. Often, they are housed in the legislative branch and their work relates to state government financial and broad operational concerns.. They are an important tool for the legislative branch to look into the affairs of government, conducting audits and drawing up the reports that are often used in committee hearings or other legislative activity. If you want to see the oversight partners in your state, you can find them in our State Legislative Oversight Wiki. They are a vital part of the legislative branch’s ability to collect and analyze information about government function. 

At the other end of the oversight spectrum is constituent casework, the subject of last month’s State Oversight Matters post and the most end-user focused exercise of oversight power by legislators and their staff. Casework typically concerns the experience of an individual constituent dealing with a government agency, and it can be a valuable source of information on how public policy and its implementation works for the people it directly affects. 

Between analytic bureaucracies that deal with auditing and analysis  and the granular world of constituent casework is a very special kind of oversight partner: the ombudsman. The idea of an ombudsman (also called an ombudsperson or just an ombuds, though ombudsman is also widely accepted as a gender-neutral word) is a European innovation. The term came into its modern use when Sweden established the Riksdagens Ombudsmän – the Parliamentary Ombudsman – to “monitor the compliance of public authorities with the law” in 1809 (the same year, for context, that the Pennsylvania General Assembly created their Auditor General). Today, Sweden’s Parliamentary Ombudsman bills itself as “a pillar of constitutional protection for the basic freedoms and rights of individuals.” 

Today, the term in the US is not limited to use in state legislatures. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has an ombudsman, and the State Department has one just to handle employee disputes. Detroit (the Levin Center’s hometown!) has an ombudsman appointed by the City Council to address citizen concerns, and so does Anchorage. Even National Public Radio had an ombudsman until they changed the title in 2019. 

For our purposes at the State Oversight Academy, though, we are primarily concerned with ombudsmen who are part of the legislative branch of state government. For the most part, these offices made their jump across the Atlantic from Sweden and into state legislatures around the mid-to-late twentieth century. Like the Swedish Parliamentary Ombudsman, they are primarily concerned with ensuring that public authorities comply with the law and protect the rights of individuals.  

Ombudsmen exist in a middle ground of oversight resources between a caseworker and an auditor, and they are a particularly interesting, very special legislative resource. While caseworkers are often concerned strictly with individuals and auditors usually work with performance evaluation, ombudsmen are typically empowered to address both the concerns of individuals and larger systemic issues. Often, they bring to the table a level of specialized institutional knowledge that can help bridge that gap between legislators and agency staff and cut through red tape. 

Today, we will look at three legislative Ombudsmen, in Hawaii, Iowa, and Michigan. Hawaii and Iowa have ombudsmen with broad authority to address public complaints about state government. Michigan has several ombudsmen with specific jurisdictions. We will specifically examine their Legislative Corrections Ombudsman. 

Hawaii 

The Hawaii Office of the Ombudsman was established in 1969. It identifies as a “classical ombudsman” with broad investigative authority over much of state and county government, but no enforcement power. The Office’s fiftieth annual report explained the Ombudsman as “an independent, non-partisan, and quasi-adjudicative officer of the legislative branch of government.” It also asserted that the office’s investigative role is “an extension of the power of legislative oversight.” 

The Hawaii Office of the Ombudsman accepts complaints about state and county agencies from the general public. An annual report for the 2021-2022 fiscal year shows that the office receives more than 4,000 complaints within its jurisdiction each year. More than half of those complaints concern the state’s correctional system. Investigations included everything from missed bulk trash collection in an apartment complex to a data entry error extending an inmate’s prison release date. All of the office’s selected investigation summaries share a common thread: they are systemic problems that require significant investigative work and institutional knowledge, but they also have immediate, pressing consequences for individuals. They are uniquely suited to the role of the ombudsman. 

Iowa 

Like Hawaii, Iowa has a “classical” ombudsman located within the legislative branch with broad investigative authority over both state and local governments. Alaska, Arizona, and Nebraska are the other three states to have such a structure, though these offices only have oversight authority over state government. Worth mentioning, the Nebraska Ombudsman has recently been ensnared in legal questions from the Attorney General about the authority of the state’s Inspectors General, which it houses.  

In another similarity to Hawaii, roughly half of the complaints that the Iowa Office of Ombudsman received last year concerned state prisons or county jails, according to its annual report. That same annual report contains a great variety of other complaints and investigations, ranging from drugs in prisons to  unemployment insurance complaints. 

The number and breadth of these investigations again reveals that the Iowa Office of Ombudsman serves not just as an important oversight mechanism for the legislative branch in which it is housed, but an important resource for Iowans. It is a direct connection between individual service and broader oversight function. 

Michigan 

Michigan does not have a single, unified ombudsman’s office in the style of Hawaii or Iowa. Instead, the Legislature has created a number of unique ombudsmen who deal with specific areas in state government. The Legislative Corrections Ombudsman, created by the Legislature as a part of the legislative branch in 1975, investigates complaints regarding the State’s prison system. By law, the LCO has unrestricted access to the Department of Corrections’ facilities and documents. The LCO’s website states that its goal is to “attempt to resolve complaints, when substantiated, at the lowest level possible within [the Department of Corrections], identify and recommend corrective action for systemic issues, and keep the Legislature informed of relevant issues regarding Michigan’s corrections system.”  

Unlike the Ombudsman offices in Hawaii and Iowa, the Michigan Legislative Corrections Ombudsman accepts complaints only from prisoners and their families, prison staff, and legislators. While this is more restrictive than the rules of engagement for ombudsman offices with wider jurisdictions, it also centers the role of lawmakers, making Michigan’s Legislative Corrections Ombudsman an even clearer mechanism of legislative oversight. In a state with legislative term limits, the LCO also gives the Legislature a more equal footing in terms of continuity and institutional knowledge in its engagement with the Department of Corrections and its complexities. 

The specialized Legislative Corrections Ombudsman in Michigan and the volume of corrections-related complaints to ombudsmen in other jurisdictions speaks to the importance of ombudsmen in corrections roles and more broadly. For people involved with the corrections system, an ombudsman is a rare neutral third party who can help mediate disputes, handle individual concerns, and address broader institutional issues. For legislators, an ombudsman can help bridge the gap between legislation and implementation and fill the gaps in institutional knowledge that are a natural side effect of electoral turnover. In Michigan, legislators found the Corrections Ombudsman structure to be valuable enough that they created a similar Veterans’ Facility Ombudsman in 2016. 

Ombudsmen are rarer in state governments than more traditional analytic bureaucracies, but they are a valuable oversight tool. They connect people to their government, provide a neutral party for dispute resolution, and help to correct broader institutional issues. Most important of all, they are a vital mechanism to do some of the most important work of the legislative branch: to look into every affair of government and to talk much about what they see.