Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-207)
MR PETER WRENCH, MR DOUG SMITH AND MR STEVE ORCHARD
THURSDAY 20 JUNE 2002
SIR MICHAEL BUCKLEY, Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and MR ALAN WATSON, Deputy Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, in attendance.
200. In a drawer somewhere?
(Mr Wrench)in a drawer, on a file, on the wrong file perhaps. I do not want to express any sort of complacency at all about the problems that we have with lost passports. One lost passport is too many.
201. Are any stolen from within the organisation because passports are very valuable?
(Mr Wrench) Certainly they are valuable. I could not offer you a figure off the top of my head.
202. The police are never called in?
(Mr Wrench) I cannot think of a specific example but it may well have happened. Just to make the point about scale though. Every week the Lunar House post room receives 25,000 bits of mail, and at any one time we have got between 70 and 100,000 passports in our hands. Even so, the fact that some go missing is wrong and regrettable.
203. A huge number of passports go missing when they are posted from the Passports Agency, it is amazing. They just disappear into the ether. They are worth a lot of money. Can I just ask you about the complaints. We know from the Ombudsman that complaints which come via the Ombudsman have gone up 3.7 per cent increase last year, over three per cent increase in 2001-02. What about the number of complaints that you receive directly about the standard of service, not complaints that come to you via the Ombudsman, how are the figures going there?
(Mr Wrench) I can not give a precise figure off the top of my head. They went up slightly last year, it is several hundred, so not huge numbers of formal complaints in comparison with the volume of business that we do. I suspect it is broadly in line with the proportionate increase on the Ombudsman side. I would say that has probably got something to do with, firstly, the increasing numbers of cases that we are actually dealing with and, secondly, the fact that as we pull ourselves out of the difficulties we were in, expectations are rising and people are more likely to complain.
204. Is there a killer question you expected me to ask that I have not?
(Mr Wrench) No, you have asked them all.
205. I have just got one further question relating to the last exchange. I would quite like to know how your organisation does handle complaints? We are very sympathetic to you and none of us would like your jobs. It is much better to ask the questions. It is much easier to ask the questions than run an organisation which then requires giving answers to questions. You deal with people, a percentage of whom do want to make complaints. I just want to know how geared up you are to handle complaints and then, I suppose, in particular the Ombudsman side which is only, of course, a small minority but if I say to you how do you view Ombudsman complaints, do you see them as a wonderful opportunity to improve your systems or do you see them as a curse, you would tell me of course it is a wonderful opportunity. I want to know just how you use complaints including Ombudsman complaints to really up your game. They require you to look at how you are working and then, what do you do to learn from those complaints and apply them across the system. Again in particular the endless refrain we get from the Ombudsman, every Ombudsman over the years, has been "Here we are making the same kind of reports on the same kind of organisations identifying the same kind of problemsrecord keeping, all those kinds of issuesover and over again. Why on earth are these organisations not learning from these reports, disseminating the lessons through their organisations and making sure these complaints do not keep occurring in the same form?"
(Mr Wrench) I do not think we respond to complaints well enough. We are trying to get better. I think historically the organisation has had quite a defensive approach. "Somebody is complaining about us, they are out to get us, we need to justify ourselves." Increasingly I and colleagues recognise that, in a sense, complaints are a free form of management consultancy. They are telling you detailed stuff about the organisation's performance that you might pay a large amount of money to get from other sources. We need at the same time to be less immediately defensive, to apologise quickly when we have got things wrong and at the end of the process to learn more fully from the experience. We are trying to get out of that defensiveness, we are trying to get out of treating complaints as a little box that is separate from the mainstream of the organisation but it is a continuing process.
206. Thank you for that.
(Mr Smith) In common with colleagues, I suspect, I have a small industry of people who provide responses to complaints which are made. Usually I do read all complaint letters addressed to me. That has shown two things in the course of the last year or so. One, in the first part of my tenure as Chief Executive the main focus of complaints tended to be on delay and error. That led me to put in place new systems, fairly early in my tenure in this job, to address error by putting in additional checking systems, not ideal in long term but in the short term, palliative, to drive up our accuracy rates and to address delay by reorganising the entire front end of our business to try and bring the speed at which we handle new applications down significantly. I think both of those initiatives have paid significant dividends over the last year. The number of complaints I receive and read about around error and delay has fallen significantly. That then left the third main area of complaints sticking above the water line and that was how well we enforce debts that are established on non resident parents. Again, picking that theme up, as that became our number one key area of complaints, we have in the last few months, firstly started shifting additional resources into enforcement, which has caused some pain, and, secondly looking again at our enforcement processes to see whether we can speed those up and perhaps act a little more as a self-confident organisation rather than the organisation which existed in the mid 1990s when many of our existing processes were created. We are leaning from those complaints and we are translating in a real way to the way we do business on a week by week basis in the Agency.
207. Thank you. Mr Orchard?
(Mr Orchard) Yes. Initial complaints tend to be made to the part of the organisation which is in contact with the client, usually my regional offices. They should be sorted there. If the complainant is not satisfied they complain to head office. The problem we have is that we are finding far too many complaints justified at that second level which should have been sorted at the first level. I have got a new Operations Director starting on 1 July and I have already delivered his brief. I have referred to that quite specifically in his brief and he has a specific task to improve complaints handling in regional offices and to reduce the number of justified complaints that we find at the second level. Apart from that, the Commission as a Commission sitting once a month considers once a quarter all the complaint statistics at every level and for every part of the organisation. The number of complaints overall is dropping, and has dropped significantly over the last 12 months but there are formal Commission reviews of all the complaints' data once a quarter.
Chairman: Okay. Thank you for that. I like the idea of complaints being a free form of management consultancy, not least because it makes the Ombudsman a very high class management team. We are very grateful to you for coming and talking to us. I think you will not misunderstand me if I say we would not like to see you again next year.
Mr Prentice: They will be back.
Chairman: Yes, I suspect we may meet again. These are important issues and obviously we will have to keep an eye on what is going on. I cannot promise we shall not want to see you again. Thank you very much.
1 Note by Witness: IND's complaints procedures deal separately with "formal" complaints against the behaviour of individual members of staff. There were a total of 530 between 1 January 2000 and 31 March 2001. In addition there are a larger number of operational complaints about delays, procedures, etc. The Integrated Casework Directorate received 3943 operational complaints in 2001-02. Back