Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 349-359)


22 MARCH 2007

  Q340  David Heyes: I just want to continue this question about the ombudsman briefly, and you used the example of the Financial Ombudsman Service and it is really on the basis of their methodology that you are impressed by them. I have to say that in practice, when I have tried to use the Financial Ombudsman Service—you are quite right that MPs often do play a recognised role in this and it is a kind of advocacy role on behalf of the complainant—but in the dealings I have had personally with the Financial Ombudsman Service, we rarely get satisfaction for the complainant. I would only take forward what I considered to be a fair and worthy complaint which had some merit in it, but I cannot ever remember succeeding in a complaint to the Financial Ombudsman Service. I get the impression that they are actually a creature of the banking system rather than being there as a representative or an impartial broker which is what we would want them to be, so can I just ask you to comment on that.

  Professor Dunleavy: I think that the Financial Ombudsman Service finds in favour of the complainant about 35% of the time, so you are absolutely correct, that they do tend to stick with the banks or the financial industry in the majority of their resolutions. But I think you need to bear in mind that a lot of the very clear-cut cases are resolved in that eight weeks before the formal case kicks off. So, if a bank has done something and made a terrible mistake, got somebody's address wrong or something, they will not want to persist with that, and they tend to give a speedy resolution to those cases. Also, they settle a lot of cases at the point where the Financial Ombudsman Service thinks that this is a stood-up case and the banks and the companies will settle very speedily usually at that point. So there are a lot of cases where they find in favour of the banks at the later stages, but that is because I think the easy ones tend to be dropping out a little bit earlier. I am not saying that the Financial Ombudsman Service is the be-all and end-all in terms of the way it operates; but what I am saying is that the methodologies used are very interesting methods and they are giving more of a mediated service to people and more of a speedy resolution of cases—whereas, if you look at the public sector, there is this tendency to put things into buffer zones and queue them up for a very long period of time before a decision is made.

  Q341  David Heyes: It is perhaps unfair to pick on the Financial Ombudsman Service because there are quite a number of ombudspersons that have been created by these types of organisations which very often give the appearance of being on the side of the bodies that created them rather than on the side of the consumer. Does the NCC have a view on this?

  Mr Cullum: Yes, but we have not done the research on the Financial Ombudsman Service in particular in terms of the sort of experience you were talking about, but at the general level you are absolutely right, that professional bodies that assess complaints notoriously favour the industry side, which is why gradually in areas like legal services there has been a shift away from that, but I think the financial one is structured differently, so I do not think it does fall into the same category. From our side we would say, "Well, what do consumers want out of any services?", and I guess what we are talking about is an ecology of complaints-handling and redress, how much is done internally and how much is external, how much is independent of the organisation, how much is formal and how much is informal, and people want a speedy resolution, they do want their own case to be sorted out. I think our evidence suggests that often, as well as their own case, people are concerned more generally about being sure that this is not going to recur for other people. Although the kind of test case strategy is fine, but it really does then need to be applied to other situations, so, rather than being sort of bought off in their own circumstances, people want some kind of reassurance that in some way it is being fed back into the organisation, so that even when it is external and a more formal process, it still needs to play back into how the organisation is led and how you get the messages across to the front line about what they should be doing differently in the future.

  Q342  David Heyes: This type of criticism could actually be levelled at the NCC, could it not, because you are appointed by, and could be perceived as a creature of, government anyway?

  Mr Cullum: We have an independent board who keep us on the straight and narrow. I am a member of the professional staff and a lot of our work is driven by the research which we do with consumers and I think we are very clear about the difference between representing consumer interests and talking about individual experiences because you do have to go beyond anecdotes. In the last week I've been to three consumer research events. One with Gordon Brown, Patricia Hewitt and Caroline Flint on Friday, which was a pre-Budget thing which we ran, and then two focus groups on Tuesday. So I think we are pretty closely connected with the consumer experience, but, like everybody else, we could always do more.

  Q343  David Heyes: If I can put a very awkward question to both of you, you sat through most of the previous session we had where we were focusing on the Charter Mark issue, so, if you want to talk to us about the Charter Mark, your views on it and your criticisms of it, this is an opportunity to do that.

  Mr Cullum: I thought it was a very interesting session and I agree with the view that one of the issues for all sorts of organisations, because I do not think it is just limited to public services, but including public services, is how you provide some sort of mechanism and focus for people to change and how you make them more focused on the interests of consumers. Over the years that I have been doing consumer work, my view has gradually changed. I used to think that the public sector and the private sector were terribly different, but I am not sure I do think that anymore, having done lots of work on the private sector which seems to me just as unfocused on consumer needs at times, if not more sometimes, so these kinds of mechanisms do feel very important. Also, it feels that there very clearly is an issue about awareness of it. Although we have not done surveys on awareness, I would be surprised if you did a consumer survey and vast numbers of public service users knew what the Charter Mark was or how it was earned. Over time, my sense is that the way in which they are awarded has become more sophisticated. One of the issues you were talking about earlier was about customer satisfaction surveys, and we have concerns about the bluntness of satisfaction surveys at times, but it feels like it has become more sophisticated. I remember a few years ago looking at the Charter Mark announcement and there was a press release with the announcement about each winner, and one of the things they were all required to do was to demonstrate that they had surveys of user opinion. I remember reading of all these fire brigades who all said they had 98 or 99% customer satisfaction, but I was never quite sure whether that meant that you had been carried from a burning building by a burly fireman or that your house had not burnt down this year, so it was another good year. So there are big questions about how you delve beyond the headline figures, who you survey and what you really ask them about.

  Q344  David Heyes: Is there a role for the Charter Mark? What might the future be?

  Professor Dunleavy: I think the Charter Mark was a moderately successful innovation in the early 1990s and I am sure it does some good in the world in the way of a lot of things, but I do not think from any of our research that we have ever encountered a view that it was salient from the grassroots, and it is mentioned very rarely in focus groups and so on. The other thing that slightly worries me about it is that quite a large number of government agencies now—especially small- and medium-sized agencies, agencies which perhaps do not deal very extensively with the public or in conflictual situations, where there is a conflict of interest between the citizen and the agency—they really are in a position to get towards what we call `zero complaints'. Now, you would have to define what `zero complaints' meant, and it might not mean absolutely zero, but for a large number of government agencies it is possible to go from one year to the next with very, very few complaints, so that you can also proactively respond to those complaints. It seems a little bit invidious to me to give agencies of that kind a Charter Mark, as if they have done something special, when really it is not all that taxing for them to be in that situation. If you look at it from the perspective of people in rather stressful work conditions, dealing with difficult clients, trying to assemble information perhaps with not very good IT systems and so on which they are grappling with, to see other agencies getting the Charter Mark when they are doing their best and not getting one, and not within an observable distance of getting one, I think, is a little bit counter-productive.

  Q345  David Heyes: By inference then, it has a significant impact on the organisation in the example you just gave in terms of staff motivation?

  Professor Dunleavy: Yes, I think it can be demotivating for people to see other people getting a Charter Mark when they have not got a comparably difficult task to deal with.

  Q346  Chairman: But the experience of the passport service, which we have been hearing about, which is very much a customer-facing organisation, their ability both to lose the Charter Mark and to reacquire one surely shows that it does work, and can work, very well in those kinds of settings?

  Professor Dunleavy: Most central government administrative agencies, if they were able to triple their expenditure, could get a Charter Mark, I would think.

  Mr Cullum: But you are right, I think, to say that. The questioning which was going on earlier on, asking about how easy is it to lose one is absolutely pertinent to this. Clearly, for it to work properly, there has got to be both a positivity about getting it plus a residual fear at the back of your mind about losing it. I do not think we are maybe quite as negative about it and we do think it is a good way of trying to engage staff. The Passport Agency is a fantastic example of an organisation, even though they have spent more money, which was unbelievably lacking in focus on consumers and completely disorganised and one which, although not perfect, is now clearly better.

  Q347  Chairman: I asked Bernard Herdan whether he could explain or justify the way in which the whole Citizen's Charter approach, of which the Charter Mark was a component, had been effectively ditched. The Ombudsman has said to us in the past that she thinks that this was a big mistake and it involved taking the eye off the ball as far as users were concerned. Is that a view which either of you would share?

  Mr Cullum: Clearly the Citizen's Charter was quite a well-known concept and where the previous witness was describing its associations with the past, I can see where that is coming from, but, as a branding issue, I do not feel particularly strongly about it. I guess there is an issue, which you also touched on, which is about the extent to which consumers and users of services are very clear about what they can expect from those services and, to that extent, elements of the Citizen's Charter worked quite well and people had something which they could look at and say, "I am supposed to be getting this". Now, there are different mechanisms for doing that. Do you need something which encompasses all services? How specific do want to make it locally? How is it articulated?. But it is that idea of having something. One tenant we interviewed in our research recently said, "I just want them to run a professional service. They should have a statement saying what we can expect and stick to that". That seemed to me quite a reasonable point of view.

  Q348  Chairman: That was a core idea of the Citizen's Charter originally, was it not?

  Professor Dunleavy: I think the most valuable bit of the Citizen's Charter was the idea of trying to communicate in a well-worked-out way to citizens that there were some general public service standards and what these standards might be. I think that subsequently—with the sort of edging out of the Charter; and the Office of Public Services Reform not being very effective in the Cabinet Office; and then with other things, like the abolition of community health councils in the Health Service and a real hiatus in the patient support services for several years—there has been a real drop-off in focus on that for some time. There are other newer things that are coming along, like Transformational Government[10], which are beginning to have an impact, but I think there was a dodgy period a few years back in this area.

  Q349 Chairman: It is the angle of vision that is different, is it not, in the sense that we went, it seemed to me, from one which focused very much on the standards to be expected of users of services and their entitlements to one which gave obligations on service-deliverers and managers to meet targets? You are coming at it from a different perspective, are you not?

  Professor Dunleavy: Also, citizens find it very hard to understand the terminology in different areas, understand what they can expect and understand the time delays. We found that people have a sort of "shotgun" idea of how long it will take to resolve a complaint or an appeal: many people think it is going to take a very long time in the public sector, which is an offputting thing for them.

  Q350  Mr Liddell-Grainger: It is getting complicated to complain now compared to the good old days when you knew you could go to your council. It is desperately complicated. If you look at these websites on how to complain, even they are complicated. What advice would you give to somebody who wants to complain? Can we not make the system less complicated?

  Mr Cullum: I think that is what we are both arguing for and certainly on the formal side of things, that is exactly what it should be.

  Q351  Mr Liddell-Grainger: But how do you do it? You are arguing for it, but how do you do it?

  Mr Cullum: We have been focusing a bit on the formal side, but personally I think a lot of the issue is about how organisations are led and run and actually the big issue is not so much some of the formal mechanisms, it is the informal approaches within organisations and their systems. I say again, from the work that we have done, this is something which is an issue endemic to both public and private organisations. Individuals do not particularly like being on the receiving end of complaints. Nobody particularly wants to be told that they have not done a good job and people are inevitably defensive about that. So for the leadership of organisations, the challenge is how you break down those barriers so that people do see that actually they will not be necessarily blamed personally if there is a complaint and that the organisation learns from it and you both put it right and do something differently.

  Professor Dunleavy: Some things have got easier. If you are online, I think it is much easier now with Google, the search engines and so on: they have made it easier for people to access complaints. The proportion of department and agency websites with easy access to make a complaint has gone up from 70% to 82% in the last three years, and that is a positive movement. I think MPs have been very much more activist over the last ten years in their involvement in complaints. And some departments have also moved towards more centralised handling of MPs' and other people's complaints, certainly the Department of Health has made that move and so on, so there have been some positive things. However, particularly if you are not on the Internet and you do not have a particular piece of paper in front of you with a named official, you still have a really major problem in kicking off a complaint.

  Q352  Mr Liddell-Grainger: I suppose the next question is: do we, God forbid, need to bring forward some form of legislation to actually help, to try and say, "This is your right to complain", though there is obviously a better way of doing it, or should you two just get together and set up Where do we go from here? You have given us the theory, but give us the practice.

  Professor Dunleavy: I myself would like to see a kind of regionalisation of the ombudsman service. I would like to see the ombudsman service playing more of a role in the bulk handling of complaints and being a little bit less, "We are the elite. We handle the very interesting and difficult complaints". So I think there would be more that you could do in that way and particularly if there was a national as well as regional phone numbers for people who do not have Internet access, that is really the number one priority, I think.

  Q353  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Well, let us take a regional scenario where you have a national body. Does the national body have a regional part or do you set the regional part up to a national body? As MPs, we write up on complaints and yes, you are absolutely right, I think we probably have become more proactive, but the letters we get back are pretty unreadable most of the time. Quite honestly, when you get them back, you are not entirely sure what you should be telling the constituent. Surely, there is a need to have some plain English amongst all of this and either a responsibility or not a responsibility? Can that not be cleared up?

  Professor Dunleavy: I think most of the problems, 75% of the problems arise in three areas: tax, DWP, and the National Health Service. And we would suggest that, unless you have very focused management attention on these big, regular complaints-generating sources, you will not be able to get a real improvement. I think you can look at some parts of DWP, such as the Pension Service led by Alexis Cleveland, and they have made very important reductions in complaints through shifting towards more phone-based, more interactive systems. Here they get more of the right kind of information out of people and they make more of the right decisions, first time. So, instead of the very broad-brush kind of things which do not really focus on the places where the big bulk of complaints are being generated, we would like to see an approach focused on those remaining big complaint-generating areas.

  Q354  Mr Liddell-Grainger: I do not disagree with the three examples you gave, I think that is probably pretty fair, but can we just take the train companies. If a train company is, I think, over two hours late, you get something back, although I cannot remember exactly what it is, I have taken up complaints for constituents. Should that happen with government bodies where there is a stick, a very public stick?

  Professor Dunleavy: In our focus groups, people were quite equivocal about compensation. They certainly felt that, if somebody suffered as a result of a decision or a bad process, they should be put back to where they were. But they were worried about the possible growth of a kind of litigation-based, damages-based culture, so it was not a high priority for them.

  Q355  Mr Liddell-Grainger: It makes the offending party actually have to do something. It is very easy to hit button B and send out a gobbledegook letter, but it is a pain in the neck if you have got to send out a cheque or some other thing to keep them quiet, so you want to have some form of punishment other than button B, do you not?

  Professor Dunleavy: Certainly the amounts of compensation paid out by central government bodies are very, very small at the moment.

  Q356  Mr Liddell-Grainger: That is why I am asking you the question. Should we explore that?

  Mr Cullum: I suppose from our side it would be back to what people want out of it. They want their own situation to be remedied, so, if they have suffered a loss, it is only appropriate that that is covered, and they want the system to change for other people. So then I guess it is a judgment about whether applying some sort of penalty will create an incentive for the organisation to improve. Part of the issue then, I would imagine, is what the relationship is between the staff members and the company and, for it to work, you would have to create a culture in which the staff members cared as to whether the organisation was going to be effectively fined or not. I think our experience of the focus groups is the same as Patrick's, but I think one issue is whether, at the moment, in areas like transport, there is an incentive on the companies actually, because of payment, not to tell you of your rights. So you say that, if a train is particularly late or there is a delay on the Tube, you can get a payment back; but, in my personal experience, I have never heard that announced. If you are standing on the Tube platform for more than 20 minutes, they do not make an announcement, saying, "We've just triggered your rights under a particular compensation scheme." The danger is that actually by creating some of these structures, the imperative on the organisation is then to bury the details, which I guess goes back to the question not just about having rights, but how they are communicated and articulated so that people really know what they can do.

  Q357  Mr Liddell-Grainger: That brings me back to the level where I started, that it is too complicated to complain. Therefore, you have answered your own question actually in many ways, that we have got to make it simpler, so is Philip's and Patrick's on the cards?

  Mr Cullum: I think we are both saying that it does need to be simpler and we are both suggesting that, at the very high level, the ombudsman scheme needs to become much less fragmented. Just to put in a word for colleagues at Consumer Direct, that is providing us at the NCC with a huge amount of very useful information about areas of consumer detriment. It does seem to be well received by people as a way of doing some sort of routing. It is an interesting suggestion, what you say, and the idea of somebody else stepping in to help do some of the routing. I do lots of work on regulation and we have done quite a lot of work on reputation and regulation, we published a pamphlet at the end of last year about it, and one of the interesting areas there is the extent to which in the utilities, for example, it is not the regulator who tells you what the best deal for you might be, but what they do is authorise and accredit or and all these different people, so it is saying that actually there is a valid role for somebody as a sort of integrator coming from a non-government perspective, and maybe that is an interesting issue to pursue further.

  Q358  Mr Liddell-Grainger: It is very easy for us, as MPs, because we tend to know, in the three examples you gave, who to go to, we know who to get hold of, and there are certain government organisations which have dedicated switchboards for irate MPs, and maybe that is a good idea or not, but that is not open to the public. You are right, you look on the Net, but you do not know how to complain—and I do not know where lives, I do not even know if it is British, I assume it is, but I have no idea—and that is possibly because you have nobody to guide you. Surely, between us and in an ideal world, there must be a solution because this is what we are trying to find out, but how do you come up with a solution? Is it legislation, is it stricter guidelines, is it an overall controlling body like or something, or maybe is the one, or is it that we become, as citizens, more aware of our rights through government propaganda, which I suppose is a crude word, or awareness?

  Mr Cullum: Lots of those things, yes, that is a good checklist. I think one thing which you alluded to is really important. At the moment we have been focusing on putting things right and we would prefer as much as possible to focus on organisations getting it right rather than just putting it right. You talked about a more direct contact with organisations and again, back to both our public and private sector research, what seems to us to be an ongoing problem is that organisations and the people at the top especially are completely distant from any sort of customer experience. They are surrounded by people who tell them that the service is absolutely brilliant, so they are not challenged and they do not hear what it is like. I think you talked in the first session about Tesco and people have mixed views about Tesco, but the supermarkets have actually come out quite well in our surveys. One of the things which I think makes a difference in the way Tesco operate is that the Chief Executive personally spends a lot of time with consumers and that makes a difference. It sends a signal about the organisation and it makes a difference to the culture.

  Professor Dunleavy: In fact all the board members have to do a week in store, and every year just before Christmas and Easter all the headquarters staff have to work in store. There is no substitute for people getting a good grip on how it feels, and we are constantly amazed at that.

  Q359  Mr Liddell-Grainger: But you come to the chicken and egg, do you not, by putting it right and getting it right and, to put it right, you have got to make the push to be able to do that. At Tesco, that means you do not shop there or whatever and they see that in their figures, but the Identity and Passport Service is a prime example of where it was so bad that everybody complained, so they had to improve it, but that, for the average citizen, is very hard to do.

  Professor Dunleavy: Yes.

  Mr Cullum: Personally I would not overplay that argument in relation to the private sector. I wrote a report last year called the stupid company, the subtitle of which was how British business throws money away by alienating consumers.[11] Companies often act totally against their own self-interest and you would think intellectually that they would be completely driven by the desire to win as much business as possible, but that is not obviously true. For some, but not for everybody.

  Professor Dunleavy: It is a very mixed picture.

10   Cabinet Office, Transformational Government: Enabled by Technology, Cm 6683, November 2005 Back

11   National Consumer Council, the stupid company: how British businesses throw away money by alienating consumers, February 2006 Back

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