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
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 disadvantagedlow-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 websiteit 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