Ombudsman Nicholas Diehl is a three-time client of the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP). His first project with us was during his time in the Corporate Ombudsman Office at the American Red Cross (ARC). His second and third project with us occurred during his time leading the Office of the Ombudsperson at the Asia Development Bank (ADB). We caught up with Nick as he transitions into his new role at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Ombuds Office. We welcome him to the neighborhood and the local, Boston ADR community.
HNMCP: How did you first heard about HNMCP and become interested in being a client?
Nick Diehl: Just as I left my ombuds role at the National Institutes of Health, Howard Gadlin did a project with HNMCP involving a survey of staff about impressions of their ombuds office. I heard great feedback about the project and how helpful the results were
HNMCP: How did you imagine the Clinic’s expertise might support your work at ARC and ADB?
ND: I think that ombuds offices, like most other functions in an organization, should have accountability for contributing to the function of an organization. Measuring satisfaction with the service and the effectiveness of outcomes can be quite challenging, so it is important to have an outside entity conduct an evaluation. While an office should seek feedback on an ongoing basis, having an external perspective enhances credibility and provide an opportunity to incorporate new ideas and approaches to the work.
HNMCP: What were the most important issues you wanted us to address in our projects with you
ND: There are two different goals that I had in the more recent projects. First, I wanted to understand why a segment of the staff population was using the ombuds service at a much lower rate than other groups. For an ombuds office, it is important to attend to those who proactively contact the office and understand why some may not. The goal of the project was not necessarily to increase traffic to the ombuds office, rather to ensure that any barriers to use were removed and that the focus of services were relevant
The second project was focused on measuring satisfaction with the experience of working with the ombuds office and whether it was effective. Without an outside group conducting an evaluation, it is hard to gauge whether people are satisfied with the office or not
People do not always respond to surveys from ombuds and, unless they have completed their work with the ombuds, they might feel some obligation to respond positively so that the ombuds would continue to work with the person. Having an external entity conduct an anonymous survey provides a greater possibility for candid and constructive feedback.
HNMCP: What did you think might be the biggest challenges of the projects before we started? What ended up being the biggest challenge?
ND: Since there was a 12-hour time difference between my location in the Philippines and Cambridge, I was concerned about how we could manage to connect effectively. The student teams and their advisors were wonderful about being flexible and accommodating.
The biggest challenge was managing expectations, both for us as a client and the student team, about what was feasible to accomplish during one semester. As we started the projects with great enthusiasm, we had to temper that with some consideration for scope. It was crucial to plan for work that would be meaningful and possible to complete during such a short timeline.
The project supervisors (HNMCP faculty) were very helpful in providing some guidance and bounds for what would work best.
HNMCP: What was the most engaging part of the project for you?
ND: I very much enjoyed two parts of each of the projects that we did. The first was the beginning stage which requires clarification of the ultimate goals of the project and the generation of ideas for how to achieve them. I remember, especially with the first ADB project, that I had a vision for what we would do and as the team discussed the project with us the concept changed and became much stronger. It was energizing to experience the exchange of views and to see the creation of new approaches.
The second part that I found to be fun was when the students submitted their feedback, ideas and recommendations at the end of the project. They contributed many great thoughts about different ways to manage our work. Some of the ideas were not workable immediately, based on organizational limitations, but they generated great discussion and provided an opportunity to refine the suggestions in a way that was very constructive and allowed us to execute the modified suggestions.
HNMCP: What concerns did you harbor in working with students? What were the attractions?
ND: The concern that I had with working with students is how they would be able to manage this project with their many competing responsibilities. In some cases, team members were making calls at 2:00 AM in their time zone to accommodate schedules with staff in Manila. Their dedication was amazing.
The students brought great enthusiasm and curiosity to the projects, which was enjoyable for me and my colleagues. They offered up many suggestions that incorporated social media and techniques that we had not considered previously. The discussions we had about our practice helped them understand our work and provided a forum for us to reflect on our approaches and to consider different ways of engaging with our constituents.
HNMCP: What tangible results have you seen unfold for the Red Cross and/or for Asia Development Bank?
ND: At ADB we saw a significant increase in traffic from a group of employees who had not been using the office previously. There are several factors related to that change, but many of the suggestions of the team made a big difference. The recommendations, based on the team members’ conversations with staff, reinforced the relevance of some of the steps we had planned to take, presented new approaches and allowed us to de-prioritize some other actions that we might have taken otherwise which were not crucial.
Having data regarding satisfaction with the ombuds function was also very important. The feedback confirmed some of our views on where we were being very effective and highlighted areas for improvement. The data helped shape how we provided and communicated about our services.
For example, we found that facilitated group sessions were very appealing to some staff members who might not have felt comfortable visiting the office individually. So, we developed a forum for administrative staff to discuss issues common to that role and to help build mutually supportive networks within that group. As a result, participants could gain insight from the ombuds office about techniques to resolve issues; learn from peers; and develop an understanding and trust in the ombuds office. These steps removed some of the perceived barrier to using the ombuds.
In addition to achieving our core goals for each of these projects, the fact that we were conducting them at all enhanced the reputation of our office. It demonstrated that we were interested in ensuring that we were providing what staff needed from the office; we really cared about the experience of working with the ombuds; and the office was holding itself accountable for contributing to supporting the institution in a transparent manner.
HNMCP: Are there things you learned on these projects that you’re taking with you to MIT?
ND: Absolutely. Although the approach to an ombuds practice should reflect the needs of the organization, there are some elements that are universal. One of the most important things I learned was the importance of considering whose voice is not being heard. There is a wide variety of preferences for how to raise and resolve concerns, and an ombuds should explore how to adapt, within the standards of practice, to the particular needs of different populations.
I look forward to the potential of working with HNMCP again in the future. Our work together has enhanced my practice.
Nicholas Diehl is an Ombudsperson for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He previously served in the same capacity for the Asian Development Bank, American Red Cross, National Institutes of Health and Princeton University. Mr. Diehl served as president of the International Ombudsman Association and is a frequent presenter and course instructor on organizational ombudsman practice. He holds Master’s degree in Conflict Analysis and Resolution and Organization Development.