Friday, June 24, 2011

Client Spotlight – Dr. Howard Gadlin

Ombudsman, National Institutes of Health

I originally learned about HNMCP through my professional acquaintance with Professor Bob Bordone. I’ve been a guest lecturer in his Dispute Systems Design class for several years and I am a big fan of him and of his work. When I was at UCLA I had great success working with a team of students interested in addressing racial, ethnic and other identity-based disputes, so I knew firsthand how effective students could be, especially when working on something that matters to them. I was intrigued to work with a student team again on the first formal evaluationof the NIH Office of the Ombudsman since the program piloted in 1998. There is always a glimmer of concern that the demands of students’ coursework might interfere with a project, but that turned out not to be a problem at all with the HNMCP team.

There were two major challenges for the project. The first was the relatively brief time Rachel (Krol ̕ 11) and Diana (Tomeszkso ̕ 11) had to develop an understanding of a complex and opaque federal agency of 20,000 employees. The second was to find a way to elicit the cooperation of a large enough number of NIH people to provide a meaningful evaluation of our program. Staff at NIH were much more responsive than I had expected given they are bombarded regularly with emails, surveys, mandatory trainings, and an assortment of inquiries. I worried that they just might not have the time or desire to engage with the students. I was happily wrong.

The biggest surprise of the work was the value of a piece of the evaluation the students proposed that, initially, I had not thought would be worthwhile—focus groups composed of people who had never used our office. It turned out that the results of those focus groups was one of the most useful parts of the project. The major insight coming out of all the work was that there is an ongoing concern about confidentiality at NIH, even in relation to our office, where we are scrupulous about protecting confidentiality.

Post-evaluation, we are tremendously energized, filled with ideas about new projects to pursue, many of which we have already begun to implement. We’ve modified our website and office brochure and increased our presence in orientation sessions for new staff and post-docs. The evaluation also has served as an excellent introduction to our program for two new staff members who have joined The Office since we received the final report. I foresee that we will experience the effects of the report far into the future.