Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 329-339)


22 MARCH 2007

  Q329 Chairman: Let me welcome Professor Dunleavy from the LSE and Philip Cullum, Deputy Chief Executive of the National Consumer Council, both of whom have huge knowledge and experience of the issues we are concerned with. We are very grateful to you for coming along and talking to us about them. We are talking about complaint issues in government and probably also talking more widely than that as well. Thank you for the memorandum from the LSE Public Policy Group which develops the work that you did for the National Audit Office, and thank you for your memorandum from the National Consumer Council. Is there anything you want to say by way of introduction?

  Professor Dunleavy: I would like to say that citizen redress in all its forms is a very large scale activity. We documented costs in 2003/4 of £710 million. We think that is up to around £830 million a year now just for central government and that does not include the National Health Service and local government complaints. You have 9,000 staff working in that central government area. And that does not include the very important role that MPs play in the whole citizen redress process: they are the third most cited way in which citizens feel they can get a wrong decision put right, so very important. Obviously we could not cover that role of MPs in our report but that is a very large scale activity as well. We have a pretty high level of activity and I do not think we are getting a Rolls-Royce service for the money that is being spent. That is really what the initial report says.

  Q330  Chairman: Let me ask immediately so that we can cut to the chase. Given all that, how would we get a better service? What are the key things?

  Professor Dunleavy: The first thing is that there is this distinction running right the way through British Government between complaints and appeals. This is very important for the operation of ombudsman services as well. We did four focus groups and a big large scale national survey in 2003/4 and we could not find anybody amongst the populace at large who really understood the distinction. Most people when they complain are unhappy about a decision and looking for a second look, looking for someone to check it. Most people when they appeal are doing the same thing. Within the Civil Service a complaint has this special standard of being slightly unethical. It is more than just a mistake; it is seen as a failure of due process, treating people incorrectly or something of that kind. Civil servants are very sensitive about complaints. The complaints figures that we have are minimal estimates of levels of dissatisfaction because people in the civil service see complaints as impugning the organisation in some way. Actually complaints and appeals, they really run together. What the public are looking for is some rectification of something which they see as an incorrect decision or an injustice of some kind.

  Q331  Chairman: But these are different systems.

  Professor Dunleavy: They are very long-established and very different systems, but it is very hard for citizens to understand that distinction.

  Q332  Chairman: But, behind the distinction, there is a fundamental distinction. One is about legal entitlement and one is about how people are treated. That is a fundamental distinction, is it not?

  Professor Dunleavy: I think it might be legally and administratively fundamental. It is not terribly easy to communicate and, when it is communicated in separate leaflets, on separate parts of websites and separate processes and systems, citizens find that a bit hard to cope with.

  Q333  Chairman: The mapping of the system that you have done has been extraordinarily helpful to us and we can see that it is a haphazard system. There is a vast amount of stuff going on, but it is in a rather haphazard way in terms of recording the problems of this distinction between complaints and appeals and so on; as to the question of how you resolve the problems, one proposal which has emerged, and I am not sure whether you put it to the NAO or whether the NAO came out with it themselves, is that there might be some point in having a common access point, one of the advantages being that it could explain to people the difference between complaints and appeals, and point them in the right direction. Could you just make the case for that?

  Professor Dunleavy: Well, people can go on the web now and 59% of British households do now have Internet access, so they can get a relatively much better level of service than the people who do not have Internet access. Yet 40% of people still do not have Internet access and those people are particularly concentrated in groups who are vulnerable or in some way disadvantaged—low-income people, people on benefits and elderly people. They often find it extremely difficult just to kick off a complaint or a request for an appeal because they ring up numbers that they get from the telephone book or the Citizens' Advice Bureau or some other sort of line and then they get referred from pillar to post, "That's not us, we don't do that. We do complaints and you want an appeal", all that kind of stuff. We did some mystery shopping for this report with 20 departments and you had to be a pretty confident and persistent person to get from a general enquiry point to being able to make a complaint. Then, when we discussed that experience with focus groups, there was considerable evidence that this was quite a general experience, that, unless you had a piece of paper with a specific number on it, it was very difficult to initiate a complaint. The proposal particularly for a sort of central telephone point which was properly publicised and well known came really from the focus groups and, when we put it to the national sample of people that we surveyed, there was a very strong level of support.

  Q334  Chairman: Yes, we put this to the Ombudsman and she was not keen on it.

  Professor Dunleavy: No.

  Q335  Chairman: Why would that have been, do you think?

  Professor Dunleavy: Well, the ombudsman service in Britain has been running for 40 years now, as you know, and it is in a style which has not been a style that is very attuned towards helping people with bulk complaints. It is really a service that delivers a Rolls-Royce service on some important things, like test cases involving lots of people, but at the time when we did the report, the number of enquiries being directed to the ombudsman service was very, very small indeed. Since then, the Ombudsman has changed her website—it has significantly improved, and the number of enquiries has somewhat increased. But I think there are other models of the ombudsman service, and I mentioned the integrated ombudsman service which is run by Professor Alice Brown in Scotland with a very small staff of 37 people, spanning right across local government, the Health Service, the Scottish Executive and so on. The Netherlands' national ombudsman also has a pretty small staff, but has a very big public profile and is about three times more recognised than the British national ombudsman.

  Q336  Chairman: We have been developing these independent adjudicators in different bits of government here. We spoke to the DWP about this last week because they are now setting it up across the DWP, having previously been only in the Child Support Agency, and we asked them whether they would recommend this to the whole of government and they were very tentative about that because people never want to do that kind of thing, but is that not a model that is worth exploring? If we have sort of hit-and-miss stuff on the ground and high-level Rolls-Royce ombudsman stuff at the top, but have got problems with volume complaint-handling, maybe the adjudicator model spread across government would be one way of getting hold of that.

  Professor Dunleavy: I think another very interesting model is the Financial Ombudsman Service which is a very well-known service, very widely used, and it covers the whole of the financial services industry. If you kick off a complaint with them, they will then notify the bank or building society or insurance company, whatever it is, that you have made a complaint and the firm then has eight weeks to respond. And in fact is charged a sum somewhat in excess of £300 if it does not respond within eight weeks and then it gets into a formal thing, so they have very strong incentives to resolve things within the eight weeks. Then, if the case is still persisting and has not been resolved, the Financial Ombudsman Service will do a phone-based discovery of what the problems are, so you have to have something signed. But basically compiling masses and masses of written evidence about what the problem is really does not help in many cases. So the Financial Ombudsman Service will compile a phone-based discovery and it will phone up the complainant, and phone up the bank, and try and focus down on what the real point of the issue is. They resolve 35% of complaints at that stage by issuing a sort of preliminary adjudication. Therefore, first you have the eight weeks to get a resolution and then you have a preliminary adjudication. The number of people who then persist through beyond that to the very highly paid ombudsman who sits at the top of that system is very small. The process is mainly phone-based and it has a lot of IT.

  Q337  Chairman: So who, as you see it, would do that for the public sector as a whole? What body, what mechanism would do it?

  Professor Dunleavy: You might think, if you looked at the Scottish model, that it would be applicable on a regional ombudsman basis.

  Q338  Chairman: Using the ombudsman system to do it?

  Professor Dunleavy: Yes, and then, if you had regionally based ombudsmen, they would know the local administrative systems that they are dealing with; they would be dealing with local authorities and health authorities which they knew very well; they would know the DWP and HMRC people; and they would be dealing with regional MPs. I think they could be a forum for regional MPs to really put pressure on, "Why are we the worst region on this?" in some service area. Then I think you would have a central service, a small national office to do big legal test case kind of things and provide overview and policy development.

  Q339  Chairman: Could we have a kind of Public Service Direct, like NHS Direct?

  Professor Dunleavy: Absolutely, and I think there are lots of creative possible solutions, basically using phone-based communication because it is much more responsive and you do not get this piling up of irrelevant evidence which is going on all over the public sector at the moment.

  Mr Cullum: Hopefully the Scottish Public Service Ombudsman is sitting somewhere glowing at the moment because we absolutely agree that that is a good model, and I think one of the issues of the current system here is that it is so fragmented. I think we have some queries rather than concerns about the regional system as to whether that is centralising and then refragmenting in some way, but I think anything which brings the system together to make it less cumbersome for people and to make it much clearer where you go to create greater consistency across services, because people do not always fall into a very clearly central category or a local category or a housing category, makes much more sense from a consumer perspective. Then you would have a service which was much more open for consumers to go to direct and which advertises itself, and one of the good things that the Scottish system has done and also the Financial Ombudsman Service is the fact that they are doing much more reaching out to people.

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