Time for a People's Ombudsman Service - Public Administration Committee Contents

5  Wider public benefit

Learning from complaints

61. Academics Professor Trevor Buck, Dr Richard Kirkham and Brian Thompson suggest that, while complaints handling is an ombudsman's "core function", there is an increasing emphasis on passing on lessons learned from investigations and promoting good administration outside investigations.[71] PHSO seeks to achieve a "wider public benefit" from its work both by securing outcomes that drive improvements in services, and by improving complaints handling within those services.

62. PHSO provided us with examples of how the service has influenced improvements in complaints handling in government departments and agencies. PHSO's strategic plan for 2013-18 outlines several objectives to achieve service improvement:

    We will more systematically generate insight into service failures. This insight will be gained from investigating and resolving complaints and will be used to more effectively contribute to improving public services.

    We will work with experts, service providers, regulators and policy makers to use our insight to influence the development and adoption of solutions to major service failures.

    We will support Parliament in holding government and public services to account.[72]

63. The importance of the need to learn from complaints to improve the delivery of services was endorsed by the majority of our witnesses. PHSO said that:

    Insight from complaints plays a critical role in indicating early symptoms of a problem with a public service. The ability of public services to identify patterns, trends and themes promptly is central to making change happen quickly.[73]

64. Despite the widespread endorsement of this aspect of PHSO's work, Buck, Kirkham and Thompson said that progress has not been sufficient:

    what is lacking, to an alarming degree, is objective empirical evidence that this form of ombudsman work produces results [... there is therefore] the risk that there is no strong evidence that ombudsmen do succeed in promoting long-term changes for the better in administrative practice.[74]
    Box 4: Evidence from PHSO on improvements as a result of investigation.

    In November 2013 PHSO published a report on sexual assault abroad, which criticised the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) for failing to provide sufficient support to a woman who had been sexually assaulted in Egypt. As a result, the FCO reviewed the way it handled complaints so that the needs and feelings of the complainant were at the centre of the process. The FCO also changed its guidance on consular assistance to take account of people's particular circumstances and changed its approach to complaint handling and training so that staff learn from mistakes.

    The Warm Front scheme, run by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) until 2013, offered assistance through a private contractor (Carillion) for people on low incomes living in properties with poor insulation, or without a working heating system. PHSO investigated a number of complaints about the scheme, which all followed similar patterns. When PHSO became involved in the complaints Carillion and DECC addressed the issues, typically replacing complaints' heating systems and paying them compensation. DECC and Carillion responded to PHSO's intervention and delivered a resolution that the complainants were happy with. Since then, both DECC and Carillion have explored new ways to resolve complaints and have used the lessons from PHSO's work to improve their customers' experience.[75]

The case for "own-initiative" powers

65. "Own-initiative" powers is the term used to describe an ombudsman's ability to investigate an area of concern without having first received a complaint:

    This allows them [ombudsmen] to use evidence gathered through their own research, by another agency or regulator, by Parliament, or prompted by a specific public concern, to carry out a systemic investigation. The decision to carry out an own-initiative investigation would of course need to be both evidence-based and taken independently by the Ombudsman.[76]

66. In considering PHSO's ability to exercise its powers on behalf of the public good generally, authors Roy Gregory and Phillip Giddings, in The Ombudsman, The Citizen and Parliament in 2002, drew attention to the view of former Ombudsman, Sir Michael Buckley, that:

    for an ombudsman effectively to identify systemic defects he needs to see more than the relatively small number of cases of any particular kind reaching the Parliamentary [Ombudsman].[77]

67. PHSO is one of the few ombudsmen in Europe who do not have own-initiative powers.Which? said that giving PHSO this power would give the service greater ability to act on trends it sees developing and "give an early warning to the regulators".[78] PHSO said that having these powers would give the service the ability to:

·  investigate issues of immediate concern to Parliament and citizens;

·  respond to early warnings, maximising the preventative (and not merely the reactive) role;

·  extend access to justice to those least likely to complain, for example, the most vulnerable and marginalised in society;

·  prevent first­tier complaints systems being over-burdened with complaints that are identical or similar in substance;

·  enable trends across a particular sector to be addressed in a single investigation; and

·  gain insight into service failures and use that insight to recommend systemic remedies.[79]

68. Richard Kirkham, writing for PHSO in The Parliamentary Ombudsman: withstanding the test of time,noted that:

    The most commonly cited argument against such a power is that it would risk reducing the contact between [the Ombudsman] and complainants. But it could be created in such a way that emphasised that its purpose was to explore areas where maladministration likely to cause injustice was occurring.[80]

69. Although the use of such powers by ombudsmen who have them may be infrequent, the reported impact is said to be high, with a significant "multiplier effect" in terms of value for money. In 2006 and 2007, for example, own-initiative investigations accounted for just 1%—61 and 71 cases respectively—of the Austrian Ombudsman's caseload, and in 2007 for just 41 cases—of the Norwegian Ombudsman's investigations, but included matters such as case processing times for child maintenance payments, and confinement periods in police custody for immigration matters.[81]

70. Drawing upon the use of such powers by ombudsmen in Ireland, Queensland, Ontario, New Zealand and the European Union, Buck, Kirkham and Thompson, in Ombudsman enterprise and administrative justice, concluded that:

    it is apparent that the power of own-initiative investigation has proved to be a very useful feature of the ombudsman enterprise […] there were some good examples of best practice, for example, the approach of the Special Ombudsman Response Team in Ontario. Increasingly we found evidence of the ombudsman enterprise developing a research base, knowledge management systems and training to support themed, systemic and own-initiative work. We were particularly struck by the fact that the Australasian ombudsmen simply cannot conceive of not having such a power.[82]

71. We support the principle that the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman should have "own-initiative" powers, similar to other ombudsmen, which allow it to investigate areas of concern without having first received a complaint. The benefit of this would be, for example, the ability to respond better to early warning signals and to gain greater insight into service problems.

72. We recommend that the Government's new legislation to create a simpler and more straightforward Ombudsman serviceshould grant the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman the power of own-initiative investigations.

Oversight of complaints handling

73. A consistent theme in past reviews of the office of PHSO and of complaint handling has been the difficulty encountered by citizens when confronted by today's plethora of independent reviewers, complaint-handlers, and ombudsmen, as well as the full range of tribunals and the administrative court.Professor Patrick Dunleavy, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the London School of Economics, in his 2010 research, Joining Up Citizen Redress in UK Central Government,stated that the separation of complaints, appeals and regulatory systems created difficulties for citizens. He also observed that redress systems provide a poor standard of service for citizens, especially in respect of the quality of information available to them and in delay.[83]

74. Buck, Kirkham and Thompson in Ombudsman Enterprise and administrative justice,noted that the Local Government Ombudsman for England has developed a training role and that the Queensland Ombudsman provides training not just in good complaint-handling but in good decision-making.[84] We heard that in Wales the Public Services Ombudsman has engaged with a range of public service bodies in order to bring greater consistency to the management of complaints. Similarly in Scotland the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman has establisheda Complaints Standards Authority, which aims to standardise and simplify complaints handling procedures and to help drive improvement. Jim Martin, Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, told us that this training unit was small but has delivered 71 face to face training courses over the past year and is having a positive effect:

    All of the chief executives I speak to in health, in local authorities, in housing associations and everywhere else tell me that it has refocused them on the customer, on the vulnerable people, and it has made them understand again that the place that complaints should be resolved is not with the Ombudsman; it is the front line. Where something happens, as quickly as possible, resolve it there and then, and it is leading to that culture. I am quite pleased with the way it is going so far.[85]

75. PHSO does not have a formal role in overseeing complaints handling, but is advising the Department of Health on complaints handling, as a result of the Francis Report.

76. As we concluded in our Report on complaints handling in Government departments and agencies, More Complaints Please!, we remain concerned that the "toxic cocktail" in respect of complaints handling—a reluctance on the part of citizens "to express their concerns or complaints" and a defensiveness on the part of services "to hear and address concerns"—poisons efforts to deliver excellent public services. There is a clear benefit to the public and to good administration that the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman should use its experience to inform and lead better complaints handling across its area of jurisdiction.

77. We recommend that the Government's new legislation to create a simpler and more straightforward Ombudsman service should grant the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman the power to oversee complaints processes across its area of jurisdiction, and a formal role in setting standards and training in complaints handling.
Box 5: An overview of administrative justice systems

Until its recent abolition, the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council had responsibility for the oversight of nearly 100 tribunals. These included, for example, those for Social Security and Child Support, Care Standards, Criminal Injuries Compensation, Income Tax, Immigration and Asylum, and Mental Health. In 2011-12, there were 739,600 claims recorded in total for all tribunals.

Separate from tribunals are the various ombudsmen who resolve disputes about public services and public administration. The Ombudsman Association lists 17 ombudsmen among its membership, public and private, for the UK. There are also separate public services ombudsmen in the devolved administrations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Apart from its ombudsman members, the Ombudsman Association lists a further 28 complaint handling bodies in the UK including the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman; the Adjudicator's Office, which investigates complaints about HM Revenue and Customs; the Independent Case Examiner, which investigates complaints about several government functions, including Job Centre Plus; and the Information Commissioner, which receives complaints about data protection and freedom of information.

Within specific subject areas, there might also be a regulatory system, which in the case of health, for example, comprises the Care Quality Commission and 9 professional regulators including the General Medical Council, the Nursing and Midwifery Council, and the General Dental Council, which are all in turn subject to the oversight of the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care.

PHSO's public profile

78. A striking feature of the National Ombudsman of the Netherlands is the profile that it has across the country. The National Ombudsman writes articles for newspapers, appears on TV, and uses the media to promote his messages to the public. We were told on our visit to the Netherlands that public recognition of the National Ombudsman is high amongst the public. Some are concerned that he involves himself in matters more of policy, beyond the relationship between citizen and government, but those we spoke to said it is important that the Ombudsman gave a face to the office.

79. PHSO has a low public profile and we were told that its key messages were sometimes obscured by the lack of detailed investigation reports being made public.One individual suggested that PHSO should be "more open with the public about the complaints they assess" for example by publishing summaries online.[86] Dr Tom Frawley, Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, told us that the visibility of an ombudsman was "hugely enhanced" when the office was able to publish the outcome of a complaint.[87] PHSO explained the difficulty the service currently faced:

    Our legislation allows us 'from time to time' to lay reports before Parliament 'with respect to those functions' we feel fit, whereas our colleagues in Wales can publish the outcome of a report when there is a public interest in doing so, and can issue case digests without laying them before the Assembly. Having the explicit power to publish without laying before Parliament would enable us to publicise quickly our reports on issues that many citizens may face (at present we can only lay reports while both Houses are sitting), raise awareness of our service, and ensure that the learning from our findings and recommendations is immediately accessible.[88]

80. Other ombudsmen have greater freedom to publicise the outcome of their work. The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, for example, publishes web-based monthly case digests of its casework and the Local Government Ombudsman's annual letters to authorities are cited as models for increasing the visibility of findings and recommendations.[89] PHSO told us that:

    Publishing more reports in itself will not result in improvements to public services. However, it will increase transparency about our office and how we do our work both for public services and the public, and it will provide us with the resources we need to engage with public services to drive service improvements [...] For the same reasons, we will publish case summaries of complaints we have upheld and partially upheld. These summaries will provide valuable insight into typical examples of service failure and poor complaint handling-they will help public services learn from the complaints we uphold, and help the public understand our work and what we can do for them. We will also publish some examples of complaints we have not upheld-this will give public services a better understanding of where we think they responded appropriately to a complaint, thus helping to spread best practice.[90]

81. The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman would benefit from a higher public profile and should be free to engage the public about how it exercises its remit and powers. It should publicise more information on the outcome of cases, and so contribute more effectively to public debate.

82. The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) has already begun to put measures in place to publicise the outcomes of more cases. In support of this the Government's new legislation to create a simpler and more straightforward Ombudsman service should abolish the provision that restricts PHSO to laying reports only when Parliament is sitting. This would grant PHSO the freedom to publish not only more information about its work, but also as and when it sees fit.

71   Trevor Buck, Richard Kirkham and Brian Thompson (PHS 13) Back

72   Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, Delivering more impact for more people, (November 2013), p12 Back

73   Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (COM16) Back

74   Trevor Buck, Richard Kirkham, Brian Thompson,Ombudsman enterprise and administrative justice,(2010), p150 Back

75   Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHS 57) Back

76   Liaison Committee, Second Report of Session 2012-13, Select Committee effectiveness, resources and powers, HC 697, Ev w64 (Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman) Back

77   R. Gregory and P. Giddings,The Ombudsman, The Citizen and Parliament(2002) Back

78   Which? (PHS17) Back

79   Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHS14) Back

80   Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, The Parliamentary Ombudsman: withstanding the test of time, HC (2006-07) 421, p19  Back

81   Austrian Ombudsman Board, Report of the Austrian Ombudsman Board to the National Council and the Federal Council 2006, (March 2007); Austrian Ombudsman Board, Report of the Austrian Ombudsman Board to the National Council and the Federal Council 2007, (June 2008); The Parliamentary Ombudsman of Norway, Annual report 2007, (May 2008) Back

82   Trevor Buck, Richard Kirkham, Brian Thompson,TheOmbudsman enterprise and administrative justice(2010) Back

83   Patrick Dunleavy et al, Joining up citizen redress in UK central government, In: Adler, Michael, (ed.) Administrative Justice in Context(2010) Back

84   Trevor Buck, Richard Kirkham, Brian Thompson, The Ombudsman enterprise and administrative justice(2010) Back

85   Q102 Back

86   Julian Budd (PHS05) Back

87   Q72 Back

88   Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (COM 57) Back

89   Local Government Ombudsman, Councils' performance, accessed January 2014 Back

90   Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHS57) Back

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Prepared 28 April 2014