Environmental Protection:

Issues Raised by the Reorganization of EPA's Ombudsman Function

GAO-03-92: Published: Oct 31, 2002. Publicly Released: Nov 14, 2002.

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Federal ombudsmen help their agencies be more responsive to the public through the impartial investigation of citizens' complaints. Professional standards for ombudsmen incorporate certain core principles, such as independence and impartiality. In July 2001, GAO reported that key aspects of EPA's hazardous waste ombudsman were not consistent with professional standards, particularly with regard to independence. (See GAO-01-813.) Partly in response to GAO's recommendations, EPA reorganized its ombudsman function and removed the national ombudsman from the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. GAO made preliminary observations on these changes in testimony in June and July 2002. (See GAO-02-859T and GAO-02-947T). This report provides information on (1) the current status of EPA's reorganization of the ombudsman function and (2) issues identified in our prior report and testimonies that have not yet been addressed.

EPA's national ombudsman now reports to a newly created Assistant Inspector General for Congressional and Public Liaison within the Office of Inspector General (OIG), unlike other federal agencies whose ombudsmen report to the highest levels of the agency. Control over the budget and staff resources for EPA's ombudsman is held by the Assistant Inspector General and not the ombudsman. Similarly, overall responsibility for the work performed by the OIG rests with the Inspector General; the ombudsman no longer has the authority to decide which complaints warrant further review, as was the case prior to the reorganization. Regarding the recordkeeping and accountability aspects of the ombudsman function, OIG officials say that they will likely adopt many of the office's existing procedures for tracking, documenting, and reporting the results of investigations. While EPA's reorganization addresses some of the concerns raised in GAO's July 2001 report and subsequent testimonies, other issues remain. For example, EPA removed the national ombudsman from the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, whose decisions the ombudsman was responsible for investigating. However, the ombudsman still will not be able to exercise independent control over budget and staff resources as called for by relevant professional standards. Relocating the ombudsman to the OIG also raises some new issues regarding (1) the extent to which the position will function as a "true" ombudsman in interactions with the public and (2) the potential impact of the reorganization on the OIG's role. Although the role of an ombudsman typically includes program operating responsibilities, such as helping to informally resolve disagreements between the agency and the public, for legal reasons such responsibilities have been omitted from the ombudsman's role within the OIG. In addition, with the ombudsman function a part of the OIG, the Inspector General can no longer independently audit and investigate that function, as is the case at other federal agencies where the ombudsman and the OIG are separate entities.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA has concluded that housing the national ombudsman function within its Office of Inspector General (OIG) provides the independence and impartiality necessary to conduct credible inquiries. The agency's response to GAO's recommendation indicates that the national ombudsman function will remain within the OIG.

    Recommendation: To ensure that EPA's national ombudsman (1) is consistent with what the ombudsman community and the public have come to expect from that position and (2) does not adversely affect the independence of the agency's OIG, the Administrator, EPA, should reconsider placement of the national ombudsman in the OIG.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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