Originating in Sweden in 1809, an ombudsman is generally regarded as an official body of complaint which protects individuals against abuses of power and maladministration. Finland and Denmark were the second and third countries to establish an ombudsman, and the idea later spread to the other Nordic countries and further afield. The idea of a reliable and investigative complaint mechanism has also been established with respect to specific areas, such as disability or equal opportunities, and the format is even used in the private sector.

Older large building with trees in the front
Offices of the Swedish Parliamentary Ombudsman in Stockholm. The first Swedish Ombudsman was appointed in 1810. Photo: Riksdagens Ombudsman.

The Nordic institution of the ombudsman originated in Sweden in 1809 and was intended to protect the rights of individuals against the abuse of royal power. The term itself is of Swedish origin meaning ‘representative’. The Office of the Judiciary Ombudsman (Justitieombudsman, JO) was established in response to parliament’s demands for independent control over maladministration in the judiciary and public sphere. Enacted as part of the constitution of Sweden, the ombudsman remains an autonomous institution that also forms part of parliament’s control over the executive. The first JO, Lars Augustin Mannerheim, was elected in 1810 and served from 1810–1823.

Following the Swedish example, Finland acquired a parliamentary ombudsman in 1919 (Oikeusasiamies). Denmark became the third country in the world to establish one in 1955 (Folketingets Ombudsman). Norway followed in 1962 (Sivilombudsman) and Iceland in 1987 (Umboðsmaður Alþingis). In all of the Nordic countries, the ombudsman is elected by the parliament for a period of four years. He or she monitors the administration of national and local authorities in order to safeguard the rights of individuals.

Free complaint mechanism

The ombudsman usually conducts inquiries on the basis of complaints, but can also launch inquiries on their own initiative. They can make recommendations and write annual reports on their activities. In principle the ombudsman’s decisions are not binding on the authorities, but are normally followed nonetheless. Complaints lodged with the ombudsman can help governments improve the quality of their actions. Anyone who feels unfairly treated by the authorities can submit a complaint to the ombudsman. The submission is free of charge. Other ombudsmen exist in a number of special areas, e.g., the equal opportunities ombudsman (called Jämställhetsombudsmannen in Sweden) and the disability ombudsman (called Handikappombudsmannen in Sweden).

Use of the ombudsman elsewhere

Since its inception, the institution of the ombudsman has spread to many countries. Its popularity increased from the beginning of the 1960s as various Commonwealth and European countries established an ombudsman office, like New Zealand (1962) and the United Kingdom (1967). Some countries have offices at the national and sub-national level, such as Austria (Volksanwaltschaft). Others have offices at the sub-national governmental level only, like India (Lok Ayukta). As part of the democratisation process, countries like Estonia, for example, established ombudsman offices to improve government administration or to investigate allegations of infringement of human and minority rights. The European Parliament elected the first European Ombudsman in 1995. The European Ombudsman investigates complaints about maladministration in the EU’s institutions and bodies.

Today, the International Ombudsman Institute (IOI), which was established in 1978, lists more than 170 independent ombudsman institutions in more than 90 countries worldwide. The IOI serves as an international network. Other networks are, for example, the Nordic Ombudsman Network, the Baltic-Nordic Network, the European Network of Ombudsmen or the European Network of Information Commissioners and Ombudsmen.

In Northern Europe, as in many other countries, the model of the ombudsman has also been adapted by the private sector, e.g., for universities, press, corporations or banks. In this context it functions as an internal dispute resolution mechanism or is used to handle complaints against a private entity by its clientele.