Evidence heard in Public

Questions 1 - 94



This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.


The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings.

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Public Administration Committee

on Tuesday 4 June 2013

Members present:

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Chair)

Charlie Elphicke

Paul Flynn

Kelvin Hopkins

Greg Mulholland

Mr Steve Reed

Lindsay Roy

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Carol Brennan, Director, Consumer Insight Centre, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, Jo Causon, Chief Executive, Institute of Customer Service, Richard Simmons, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, University of Stirling, and Richard Lloyd, Executive Director, Which?, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Thank you all very much for joining us here today. This is the first evidence session on complaints handling across Government. We are particularly concerned to look at not just the process of complaints, but the beneficial effect of complaints and to learn how we can use complaints to drive service improvement across Government. Let me start by asking each of you to identify yourselves for the record.

Richard Lloyd: I’m Richard Lloyd. I am executive director of Which?, the Consumers Association.

Richard Simmons: I’m Richard Simmons. I am a senior lecturer in social policy at the university of Stirling.

Jo Causon: I’m Jo Causon, chief executive of the Institute of Customer Service.

Carol Brennan: I’m Carol Brennan, director of the Consumer Insight Centre at Queen Margaret university in Edinburgh.

Q2 Chair: Thank you. I am very glad that we are well represented north of the border.

We know that complaints appear to be increasing across the private and public sectors, despite the fact that, generally, things are getting better, so what do you think are the main reasons for increasing complaints and is that something that we should be concerned about?

Richard Lloyd: In the private sector, it is clear what is happening, certainly in some markets: people are more aware of their rights. Consumer law is being clarified, and rights are being made easier to understand. Also, some very good work has been done in the private sector by some of the ombudsman services, particularly in relation to financial services and legal services, to raise awareness of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, which people are now using in much bigger numbers.

For example, last week, the financial ombudsman reported a much stronger consumer voice as a positive thing, not just in relation to certain products such as payment protection insurance, but across the board in relation to banking problems. That is a good model, and people know and are increasingly aware of-in relation to banking, in particular-that there is an ombudsman that you can go to. Banks are required by the regulator to make clear what their complaints procedure is, what you can do if your complaint is not resolved within a clear time frame-eight weeks-and where you can go. The regulator makes good use of the data. It requires the data about the complaints that are being made to be submitted to it and, through doing that and publicising them, it puts pressure on firms to raise their standards.

You can compare that with the public sector. We have found, when we have compared groups of people who have a cause for complaint, that in public services, relative to private markets, people are much less likely to complain. People are telling us that it is harder to navigate their way around the system. It is often very unclear where you should go and to whom you should take your complaint if it is not resolved properly locally. There is a whole range of ways in which there are barriers to people complaining, which I am sure we will come on to, and there is a sense in the public sector, relative to the best practice in private markets, that there isn’t a culture of looking at complaints as a great source of feedback about how you improve what you do for people. It is sometimes quite the opposite-a sense of resistance to complaints as if this was something to be avoided and deterred-so I think there is a lot that could be learned in the public sector from the best practice in the private markets.

Chair: Thank you for a very comprehensive answer. There are four of you, and if we’re going to make the best use of the session, we’re going to have to-

Richard Lloyd: Sorry; I’ll be brief.

Chair: That’s all right-it’s understandable. Briefly-Jo Causon.

Jo Causon: There’s obviously a direct correlation between customer satisfaction and complaints. As you have rightly indicated, what we are seeing is that, overall, satisfaction in the UK is improving and therefore issues or problems are improving, but the propensity for people to complain if they have an issue is increasing. This touches very much on Richard’s point about the fact that as consumers we have less money in our pockets and are more likely to raise an issue than ever before. We are better informed and, importantly, we have more channels through which to do that. We are more likely to use things such as social media. This, for me, is absolutely critical because there is a direct correlation between the return on investment in terms of customer satisfaction and complaint handing. It is also critical in terms of reputation. So there are some important pieces around that.

Carol Brennan: I think there is a higher level of confidence among consumers now, and they are becoming more demanding as a result of that. They have experience from the private sector, in places such as John Lewis and Marks and Spencer, of having their complaints resolved quickly and effectively, and they begin to expect that of the public services, too.

I agree with the earlier point about the higher level of knowledge of what is going on the private sector, particularly in financial services. We have now got something like 2,000 complaints per day going to the Financial Ombudsman Service in relation to payment protection insurance. A huge number of complaints is being made, and people are beginning to get quicker responses to their complaints, from the financial ombudsman in particular, and are expecting a similar kind of service from public services.

Richard Simmons: We have talked in generalities a bit. Thinking about public services, it seems to me that Richard is right to point out the fact that practice in the public sector seems to be a little way behind that in the private sector in some ways. But there is variable practice, and I think that there is good practice in the public sector in some circumstances. I do think though that there needs to be some clarity about the way in which complaints are dealt with in the public sector, so that we are able to lead people through the process more easily and make sure that people’s voices get heard.

We have talked about the online process. Jo mentioned doing things online and people have been talking a lot about channel shift recently. I think there is scope for that to happen, and it is a welcome addition to the complaints landscape, but we need to tread carefully there. One of the recommendations in the report that we wrote recently was to make sure that we keep a number of channels open for people, particularly for public service consumers who perhaps are a little more vulnerable. We also need to give careful thought to how quickly we move towards this channel shift that people have been speaking about.

Q3 Chair: Thank you very much. Very briefly: should public services regard an increase in complaints as a good thing or a bad thing?

Jo Causon: For me, the fact that anyone is raising a complaint is a good thing in terms of the knowledge and information that it shares. The issue, obviously, is making sure that you do something with that, and understand specifically what the complaints are about-really analyse what the complaints are. When I look at the evidence, and from the evidence and research that we have done, complaints will differ for particular sectors, and that is an important aspect.

The other thing that I would just add is that, at the moment, about 28% of people in the public sector, who have had a problem, are what we call silent sufferers, that is they are not making a complaint-

Q4 Chair: We’re coming to them, but yes, does everyone agree with that?

Richard Lloyd: I agree with that.

Richard Simmons: From my point of view, what Jo said there was really important. When people express their views they expect them to count, and if they do not end up counting they won’t carry on speaking for ever. So we need to listen to people, engage with them, and really try to-

Q5 Chair: So complaints are a good thing?

Richard Simmons: Complaints are a good thing and we should be working with them as a good thing. The way we have expressed it in here-and it has been said before-is that complaints are a gift. We see it more as an endowment of knowledge that we should use carefully.

Q6 Kelvin Hopkins: This is to Jo Causon really, about the Institute for Customer Services: how is your organisation funded and who governs it?

Jo Causon: We are an independent professional body. We are funded through our membership. We have more than 400 organisational members-80% from the private sector and 20% from the public sector. We look at best practice in terms of customer service, and setting the standards for quality etc., around customer service.

Carol Brennan: Complaints are a good thing and should be welcomed. We need better data in relation to Government Departments, about what the problems and the trends are, and to be in a position to make use of those data more effectively to drive improvement and innovation, which could transform services and reduce complaints in the future.

Q7 Lindsay Roy: Is the term "complaint" really understood? We often hear about concerns, disputes and grievances. Is it causing a problem, that people don’t understand the term?

Richard Lloyd: There is something in that. In particular, we have found that a lot of people simply want to give feedback about, say, how they were dealt with by their GP. There is a connotation with the word "complaint"-a formality about it. In particular, if you are dealing with a GP or a consultant in a hospital who has a good deal of power over you, there is a formality that will deter people from simply giving feedback. Often, best practice now with GPs is to try to elicit feedback-good or bad-rather than simply handing out complaints procedures. There is probably a perception of what happens to you if you make a complaint, even if your point of view is something short of a complaint, which is something that public services need to think about.

Q8 Lindsay Roy: Is your argument that we should be looking at compliments as well as complaints?

Richard Lloyd: Efforts are being made to do that, but there should be greater efforts locally and at a national level to get feedback as you would in a private organisation-about what you are doing well, good, poorly, badly-as well as the formal complaints process.

Q9 Lindsay Roy: Do any other members of the panel have anything to add?

Richard Simmons: There are a number of different channels that people can follow to make a complaint. Sometimes there is a different point of view from service providers and service consumers of what represents a complaint, so there will be different terms used by providers. Consumers will see the fact that they can express dissatisfaction through a range of different channels as a way of doing that.

The meaning behind a complaint is also different for providers and consumers. Consumers often see it as a contribution-they want to contribute to improving things-whereas the attitude taken sometimes by providers is that it is a challenge to them, and we need to overcome that.

Q10 Lindsay Roy: There is a negative response?

Richard Simmons: There can be a negative connotation attached to the idea of a complaint, rather than a positive acceptance that this is helping us identify something that could be improved.

Jo Causon: We’re talking about feedback. What are we also seeing is that consumers and customers want to be able to share their feedback far more than they ever used to. However, when I look at why perhaps people do not complain, there are three broad areas. First, they don’t believe it will make a difference; secondly the process is too much hassle, and, thirdly, there is the issue of not knowing how to complain. It is about clarity and about, as Richard has already touched on, having multiple channels and very clear processes, saying, "This is what you need to do to give us your feedback," and, "This is what you need to do in terms of engaging with us."

Carol Brennan: There can be a great deal of complexity around complaints in the public services, and they can often have many elements to them, so it is helpful if organisations define clearly what they mean by complaints. There is a great deal of information available from the Ombudsman Association for example, and from the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman in particular, about how to go about defining complaints and making that easier for people.

Q11 Lindsay Roy: Do you have any significant examples of where a lack of understanding has led to poor complaint handling?

Carol Brennan: There might be someone who is trying to make a complaint, say, about an elderly relative, and there might be several different Departments the complaint could go to-

Lindsay Roy: It’s a maze?

Carol Brennan: Being very clear about it and directing people to the appropriate source would be helpful within those definitions.

Richard Lloyd: I’ll give you an example. If you go to the NHS Choices website this morning, and key in "How to complain about my GP", it will give you a lot of detail and say, "If you don’t want to complain directly to your GP, click here to go to the NHS England website." You go to that website, and it directs you back to NHS Choices. It is a complete muddle. There are simple things about a clear process and what constitutes a complaint. If you want to give good or bad feedback about the service so that the service provider can improve, it should be easy to do; people should want to do it.

Richard Simmons: May I offer one thing here about choices in the way people communicate? It has often been said that we should be moving towards channel shift and getting people to express their views online, because it is cheaper and more efficient and we can gather views together more quickly, but what we need to do is trust people with more choices. Often people make the right choice. In the research that I did with about 500 service users, they made choices at the right level. They did not want to bother their MP over something trivial; they did not want to get involved in a lengthy process that went up through a lengthy chain over something that was fairly minor, but they still wanted to make a contribution. Having a range of choices and making everyone aware of those choices means that generally people will self select a choice that is appropriate, so we need to trust people.

Q12 Lindsay Roy: Clarity is vital?

Richard Simmons: Clarity is vital, as is providing that range of choices so that everybody who wants to contribute can find the right opportunity to communicate their views.

Jo Causon: The other thing that I would add is that when you look at complaints broadly, they fall into two key areas. One area would be around either the product or the service-the functionality; whether or not that has worked-and the other area is far more around how I have been dealt with throughout that complaint process. That will be about behaviours-this is about culture for me-ensuring that our people really understand. It is about staff competence, attitude and what they can and cannot do.

Carol Brennan: Lack of clarity can mean that people go straight to the ombudsman, because what is on offer at the various levels is not clear. If that was much clearer, obviously they could be dealt with at the right level, without having to be escalated, and, hopefully, with better procedures in place, complaints could be resolved earlier.

Richard Lloyd: There is a really important point here about the culture of complaints handling. If people feel that there may be repercussions for them in complaining about their headmaster, headmistress or GP, they are deterred; people have told us that. It is an obvious point. If the whole culture of complaints handling is very defensive and about not listening or responding, people will be put off.

I have had a consultant in a hospital shouting at me down the phone for daring to question the treatment that he was insisting on for my daughter. He said, "No one has ever said this to me before." The implication was that she was going to get taken into care or something if I did not shut up and just agree. There is something about the culture of listening and responding positively to genuine questions and challenges about what is being done in a situation where the receiver of the complaint is hugely more powerful than the customer, the client or the consumer.

Chair: That says something about the culture of hospital consultants perhaps.

Richard Lloyd: Indeed. There’s a whole new inquiry for you there, Chair.

Jo Causon: There is another interesting point here. Again, going back to our research, 73% of people will tell somebody now if they have had a bad experience. There are two things going on here, and it started with what you were saying at the beginning, which was really about this cultural shift. Analysing what the complaint is about is really important. As I said, a significant number of those will be around how I have been dealt with through the process, and not necessarily the outcome of the complaint.

Q13 Lindsay Roy: Have you researched what percentage would tell other people that they have had a good experience?

Jo Causon: A good experience? Fewer than if they have had a bad experience.

Q14 Lindsay Roy: Why do you think that is?

Jo Causon: I think because we are more open and there are potentially more channels for talking, and we will use those if we have had a bad experience. We are more likely to talk about a bad experience. It comes back to your point about whether we should raise and celebrate good experiences. I would say absolutely.

Q15 Lindsay Roy: That is fundamental if there is a culture of improvement.

Jo Causon: Yes, we should definitely talk about good experiences. I also think that there are things here that are critical but will not cost huge amounts of money. This is about making sure that we have the right culture, the right leadership, the right approach and the openness in being willing to help and support our people. I have a firm belief that people come to work to do a good job. None of us wants to go to work to do a bad job, and we want to help people through that.

Richard Simmons: Something that came up during our research when we were speaking with Patient Opinion was that to see things as good experiences or bad experiences is not necessarily sufficiently nuanced to pick up people’s experience. There are good bits and bad bits of their experience, and they want to share both. A good way, perhaps, if we are trying to capture both those things, to avoid becoming adversarial and barriers being put up by the public sector, is that if an organisation understands that they are being both complimented and criticised at the same time, they may understand that this is a contribution rather than a challenge.

Q16 Paul Flynn: What are the top three elements of good complaint handling?

Jo Causon: For me, having a very clear process that is well documented so that people know how to complain through multiple channels, as Richard has already said. Secondly, to make sure that we are training our employees not only to deal with this complaint in terms of their competence or their behaviours, but to anticipate particular complaints and to monitor and benchmark across the piece.

Richard Lloyd: I agree completely with that-

Paul Flynn: That’s a cop-out; you must give your own opinion. You cannot just sit there and say "ditto".

Richard Lloyd: Clear processes, including good communication back to people about how their complaint is being handled, so not just submitting a complaint and then you do not hear again until it has been resolved; clear stages to escalate the complaint; and a clear communication of how your complaint will be handled and how you will be taken care of during the process. Addressing this point, particularly in public services, about communicating that there will not be negative repercussions; that complaints are welcomed, how they will be handled and through what stages; and that there are a range of different channels through which to submit that complaint.

Q17 Paul Flynn: May I give a practical example of the range of complaints one has? I had a constituent who used to spend many days posting letters to himself from various parts of the constituency and waiting at home the next day with a stopwatch to see what time they arrived.

Richard Lloyd: Was this a Which? researcher?

Paul Flynn: No, indeed not. His hobby was complaining. He was a full-time complainer. Then there is Operation Jasmine, in the same area, which discovered wicked criminal neglect of the elderly in residential homes. There are the silent voices and the loud voices. In this place, you hear about lobbying and we know the pressure; we are stalked by lobbyists who are trying to buy influence and buy favours of Government. How do we seek out and find the silent voices so that their complaints are heard?

Richard Lloyd: An approach in private markets that businesses have been taking themselves, but which is certainly something that we have been doing at Which? for 50-plus years, is mystery shopping: let’s send someone to find out what it is like to complain. We recently sent researchers to GPs to see how they respond to people presenting with exactly the same condition and encountering problems. If you are obsessed with getting how you treat people right, you test yourself. You do not just rely on the vocal minority coming forward; you examine your own practices, put that under the microscope and learn from it. That is what the best businesses are doing now, it is what the best regulators are doing now, and it is something we have been doing for six decades.

Q18 Paul Flynn: You mentioned using social media.

Jo Causon: Absolutely. As we have already indicated, consumers and customers now are finding more of a voice and are more likely to voice their issues, good and bad, and to give their feedback. An important point was made earlier that all feedback, good and bad, helps us improve the overall process. In picking that up, social media is a particular channel that is available and should be used, but it is not the only channel.

For me, to answer your question directly, how do we invite or encourage people to do it? Make it really clear how you go about making a complaint and giving feedback. Richard has already touched on mystery shopping, which is one example, but, broadly, surveying and finding out what people are actually seeing-customer satisfaction surveys and so on-is also another key way. The UK customer satisfaction index is based on five key areas-we poll over 26,000 responses over a 12-month period-and one of those areas is how well a problem or a complaint has been handled and the outcome of that. It is about asking people and encouraging them to engage.

Q19 Paul Flynn: What are the main weaknesses you would identify in the complaints-handling systems?

Richard Simmons: Too complex, for a start-particularly in the public sector. There is not enough information about the range of choices available. Sometimes, there are too many stages in the process, so that people are forced to escalate through a number of stages, and often tell their story time and again.

There is also, perhaps, a lack of recognition of the fact that, sometimes, people do not have the resources they might need to complain. There are vulnerable consumers who often do not have some of the skills and educational and health resources they need, so we have to help people by providing opportunities that are actually possibilities for them.

We also have to make sure that the costs and the benefits of complaining are not too far out of alignment. People are prepared to incur some cost in complaining if they think it is going to make a difference. They expect their voice to count; if it does not, they may not come back to us to complain again next time.

Q20 Paul Flynn: I am very grateful for that answer; you have answered my next question, which is helpful. As someone who has been a subscriber to Which? since it was examining the virtues of wood-burning black-and-white televisions or whenever you started-it was a long time ago-I think you have done an enormous service in opening up and challenging the power of corporate industry with your truthful and objective reports. What more should you be doing?

Richard Lloyd: At Which?, we are already looking at applying the same methods to public markets and public services that we have had in private markets for many years. We have done quite a lot of work over the years in health, but we now want to do more. As Jo was saying, there is more that we could do-as we do on energy suppliers and banks, for example-to assess how providers of public services are behaving, how they are treating their clients, and how they are handling complaints and publishing that data.

Secondly, I think we will increasingly give people really clear information about what their rights are and how they can exercise those rights, just as we do in private markets. There is a job to be done-very often, the public sector is not very good at this, to be frank-in giving people really clear, user-friendly information, advice and guidance about what you are entitled to and how you can exercise your rights, and putting pressure on complaints handlers to do things the right way.

There is another basic point here, which we have been exploring with the parliamentary ombudsman and others. Assuming more people are going to use online channels to make complaints, how can it be made easier, in particular, to access ways to resolve disputes without going to court? That means giving more publicity to the PCHO; it means giving greater clarity to people about their means of making a complaint about the public sector.

Paul Flynn: This is a final question-another practical example. If you book a flight with one of the budget flight companies, they have a little box you can tick that says, "Tick this box if you want to have £10 off your next flight." In the small print, which hardly anyone seems to notice, it says they have joined a club, which starts to take £14.95 out of their bank accounts in perpetuity. It is very difficult to stop. This has been going on for at least six years. It is a famous company. The complaints come in; indeed, I complained about this many years ago, and I still complain. The company seems to be impervious to any kind of shame. This is a clear scam operated by a major company whose name we all know. What can anyone do about that if the company decides this is a profitable line, even though it is robbing their customers?

Richard Lloyd: There are some companies and service providers who do not feel the need to protect their reputation by dealing with complaints, and they are happy, in that case, I would suggest, to break consumer law. That is where you need a strong regulatory regime for how complaints are handled and for how data about complaints are collected. If there is complete flouting of a very clear complaint about a really obvious problem, people will know there is somewhere else they can go-in that case, the Civil Aviation Authority or the OFT. But I would like the details, because certainly I would like us to do something about that. This is where-without getting regulatory heavy-ensuring that there is consistency in the way complaints are handled and data are collected helps shine a light on that sort of practice.

Q21 Chair: Isn’t this one of the problems about complaints, that people feel that there are so many ways to complain that that in itself is a barrier to complaining?

Richard Simmons: Not necessarily.

Q22 Chair: One of you was saying earlier that the more ways to complain the better, but surely that adds to the complexity?

Richard Simmons: As long as it is explained properly, I think it’s fine, but I do think that there is a case to be made for some form of standardisation. When we have been looking at the work of the SPSO in Scotland-the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman-there has been an attempt to standardise a process, and that has been unpopular with some providers.

Q23 Chair: The idea is that when you lift the phone to someone, the first person you speak to says, "Don’t worry, I will handle your complaint". That is what you want, wherever you have phoned and whoever you are in contact with.

Richard Simmons: That is if you have chosen to lift the phone. You might not feel confident about lifting the phone; you might look for other channels. You might look for representatives who can represent you in a user group, or you might look for other channels that are available to you, so lifting the phone is not necessarily everyone’s first choice.

Carol Brennan: In an ideal world, you might have one place where everyone could take their complaints-

Q24 Chair: Is that a recommendation we should make, that the Government should have a single complaints service?

Carol Brennan: Some kind of complaint hub, where people could go-if that is something that was possible to use it might be interesting to look into. But in the absence of that, what has happened in Scotland is that they have a two-stage process for public services, really encouraging people on the front line to resolve complaints at the earliest possible point and then, if that doesn’t work effectively, to escalate them to the ombudsman. The two-stage process is simpler and quicker, and it enables people to get a result much more speedily. That is sector by sector, to allow for some flexibility across the piece.

Jo Causon: We should see customer service and complaints as part of how we operate. It is an interesting point about whether you should have one single point, but the reality for me is that a good organisation will utilise this information to help improve its overall service and the overall experience it is providing.

Going back to your point, Chair, that if I contact anywhere I want to know that the person I am speaking to will be accountable for the complaint, that does not mean to say that they have to do all the things, but they will come back to me and confirm what has happened or what is going on in that process.

For me, there are two things here. It is about helping organisations, and those organisations that understand this are doing better at it, to focus on how they can improve their overall service experience-complaints being a part of that-and it is about really empowering, coaching and developing their people to be able to deliver.

Q25 Chair: Streamlining complaints processes is not as important as the person who is handling the complaint. That is a more important factor, isn’t it?

Jo Causon: I think they are in balance. You need a clear process, as we have said, but some of the things we have been talking about are about making sure that you have that well documented, and well communicated across the piece. Also, it is about ensuring that our people are supported-the behaviour, the culture and the other aspects-in being able to deliver the right outcome.

Q26 Chair: We have touched on another very important point during this conversation, which is the distinction between process and culture. No amount of good process will be effective unless there is a positive complaints culture. How would you define that positive complaints culture?

Carol Brennan: I think it’s about listening effectively. It’s about being open to complaints. It’s about engaging effectively with the people who are making complaints-

Q27 Chair: That sounds like motherhood and apple pie to me, but what does it mean, in terms of what your leadership and management do?

Carol Brennan: You’re actually getting them to lead by example and deal effectively with complaints that come to them.

Q28 Chair: That sounds like process to me.

Carol Brennan: Process is important in that.

Q29 Chair: Yes, but I was asking about culture.

Carol Brennan: You have to have a culture that is open to people and welcomes complaints. You are saying that you are going to use those complaints to drive improvements, so you are saying they are important to people. You are not trying to have a defensive culture within the organisation; you have a responsive culture.

Jo Causon: Building on that, it is really important that the very top of an organisation views complaints data and does something with them. Back to this point: everyone openly discusses that, and it goes back to the front line and all the way through those processes. For me, this is about leadership demonstrating that we are really interested in this informational data, because we want to do something with them. We are going to listen, as Carol said. We are going to communicate, so this is not an elephant in the room; it is something that we actually want to talk about, so we can understand not just how to improve on an ad hoc basis but what that information means for us in terms of being better businesses and better run organisations.

Richard Simmons: We commit resources as well. The leadership has to commit resources to make sure these things are monitored, that the information comes through in a way that is usable and that we can manage consumer knowledge. Commitment of resources is important.

Richard Lloyd: In private markets, if you do not listen to complaints, it is the difference between your business succeeding and failing. We need to find ways of getting that intensity of scrutiny of complaints in the public sector, although clearly those organisations are not going to fail if they ignore them. As Jo was saying, it is about an intense focus on understanding complaints and doing something about them, but also about giving front-line staff the ability to deal effectively with complaints, empowering them to respond and do something about complaints rather than have to pass them up the line.

Q30 Chair: I’m a bit disappointed that nobody’s mentioned the words "values", "responsibility" or "accountability". Aren’t all these values-truth, integrity and honouring promises-important?

Jo Causon: Absolutely.

Richard Simmons: And respect; very much so. That is something that we have talked about in the report, which we are happy to make available to the Committee.

Q31Chair: We have it, and I am very impressed by it. Isn’t it intrinsic to the culture of an organisation? If the culture is important to complaints handling, these values are very important.

Richard Simmons: The values must also be compatible, though, with the values of the customers and consumers of the service. Sometimes that is not the case.

Q32Chair: Sometimes our customers aren’t good enough?

Richard Simmons: Well, that is a matter of opinion, and I think it is something that has to be-

Q33Chair: Shouldn’t an organisation aspire to have values that its customers may not share, but which it will nevertheless espouse?

Richard Simmons: At times, but we cannot have too great a distance between the values that consumers hold and the values that providers hold. It is not that they have to dovetail completely, but-

Q34Chair: That sounds very relativist.

Richard Simmons: It may be, but culture is an intangible phenomenon, so I think that what we are looking at is trying to find ways to know-

Q35Chair: If our customers lie to us, does that mean it’s okay to lie to our customers?

Jo Causon: No.

Richard Simmons: But our customers don’t all lie to us.

Q36Chair: No, but that is the point, is it not? The values of an organisation have to shine through even if the customers are less than scrupulous in the way they are complaining, and sometimes customers are.

Richard Lloyd: This is where leadership is so essential. The leadership of any good organisation must set the tone and establish the culture for that organisation. That is about not just imposing a set of values on the organisation but embodying them and being open, as the leader of an organisation, to hearing from people and hearing complaints. You can summarise what we have been talking about as values, but values in action are needed to make an organisation work really well for the customer.

Q37 Lindsay Roy: How big a problem is the silo mentality in the public sector? I have experience of complaining about flooding. It went through environmental health, then on to planning, then on to legal. Is lack of co-ordination a major problem that you find?

Carol Brennan: I think it can be; there are ways of overcoming that. We give a nice example of the Moffat case study in our Nesta report. That was where they got together lots of different organisations from the public services and private sector to try to get people to adopt a drain, to keep an eye on what was going on in their local communities, and to report information speedily if there were problems, so that they could try to tackle issues.

Q38 Lindsay Roy: That requires leadership and co-ordination.

Carol Brennan: It does, yes, and significant effort and significant training and professionalisation of what is taking place.

Q39 Charlie Elphicke: On values, what would you say to a constituent of mine who says, "They talk about complaints handing, but really it is all just computer driven-‘the computer says no’; they can’t be bothered; it is all a blind, unthinking bureaucracy and they all just go through the motions"?

Jo Causon: If you look at some of the research, that is the barrier to why people don’t complain. The challenge and the issue for me is, going back to the culture, the values which are embodied in the leadership of the organisation, to make sure that you have process, but that it’s not about slavishly following that process to the point where "the computer says no". It is about how we develop, coach, train our people to be able to have a human interaction, because we are talking about customers, and therefore everybody in this room is a customer, and therefore we all expect to be treated in an appropriate way. For me, it is about how we lead, how we focus what those values actually are; how we espouse and demonstrate those. The only way we are going to do that is by clearly having properly documented processes, as we have said, and a culture and a leadership that is saying, "This is how I want our people to be handled."

Charlie Elphicke: The thing is, we are not really customers, are we? I am a customer if I go into my local plumbing shop; and if I don’t like it, and I don’t like that person and they are rude to me I can go elsewhere. When I am a taxpayer, I don’t have a choice. I pay for the service compulsorily; when I don’t get the service, I can’t go anywhere else. How do you overcome that and make sure that bureaucracy is responsive to that, rather than just thinking, "Well I don’t care; they haven’t any choice"?

Jo Causon: I think that is about viewing people as customers, which is back to this cultural piece. Although you might argue that people are citizens, we have particular choice, we are actually paying money for this. Fundamentally, people who choose to work in the public sector, I believe, do it because they want to do a good job; they want to be able to deliver as far as they possibly can for the citizen-for the customer who they deal with. For me, it is about changing the perception; if we view people as customers, that should help in terms of changing.

Q40 Charlie Elphicke: Would you say, then, a prisoner should be viewed as a customer?

Jo Causon: Yes.

Q41 Charlie Elphicke: Abu Qatada should be viewed as a customer of the UKBA and the Home Office?

Jo Causon: In terms of how you might behave-so back to the other point about whether you would behave inappropriately towards somebody: well, no, you shouldn’t. Treating someone as a customer isn’t always about saying yes. Treating someone as a customer is about being clear about what you are looking to deliver, stating that, communicating that, having a conversation about that. It doesn’t always mean that the outcome for me as a customer might be the one that I wanted. It is about how I am dealt with throughout that process.

Richard Lloyd: You are right in that in private markets obviously you can switch, although very often people don’t, even when they are thoroughly dissatisfied; but there is that element of competitive pressure. Now, we have been discussing for decades, it feels to me, how you recreate that pressure on public sector service providers to treat people with respect and offer them what may often just be very simple forms of redress, like an apology when things go wrong.

That is why I think it is absolutely right to give people, where that is legitimate and possible, genuine choices where, if you are not happy with your GP, or if you are not happy with your maternity service in your local hospital, you can go elsewhere; but then that is a huge difference between where we are today in public service provision and a future of genuine choice rather than notional choice. The backdrop to getting people to feel more powerful in public services has to be a degree of meaningful credible choice and the information to exercise that choice.

Carol Brennan: People may have a long-term relationship with organisations in the public sector, so it may be important to think about other ways of helping to repair relationships that may have broken down following serious complaints. Mediation could be considered as a way of trying to repair some of those problems.

Q42 Lindsay Roy: Earlier, you mentioned silent sufferers. How do you know what percentage of people are silent sufferers? What are the implications for the organisations and the individuals themselves?

Jo Causon: In the UKCSI research that the institute undertakes, we ask a question about whether people have had an issue and whether they then decided to do anything about it. So it is those who have had an issue but decided not to do anything about it.

Q43 Lindsay Roy: How big a problem is it?

Jo Causon: In the overall public sector, it is about 28% of people in terms of those who responded to the survey.

Richard Simmons: Those figures tie in with research that we have done, where we asked people a question about whether they had actually communicated their views through one channel or another at some time or another. Around 80% of people said that they had, so around 20%-perhaps 22% or 23%-said that they had not.

Q44 Lindsay Roy: What can be done to engage them?

Richard Simmons: The things that we have been talking about. Giving people the confidence that their voice is going to be heard is the big one. When we ask people for the reasons why they would not communicate their views, the biggest one was that they felt that they would not be listened to.

Jo Causon: Or that it does not make a difference.

Q45 Lindsay Roy: How can we instil some confidence in them that it will make a difference?

Richard Simmons: Build some bridges. There are two ways. We talk in the report about improving competence, which Jo mentioned earlier. We need to improve our competence in dealing with these things. We have also talked a lot about culture. Bringing those things together actually makes us perhaps more ready to start thinking how we use these things to improve public services and to start to innovate.

Q46 Lindsay Roy: So we are back to culture and values?

Richard Simmons: I think it is culture and competence together.

Jo Causon: And process.

Richard Simmons: If you have one without the other, there is a problem.

Jo Causon: The other thing that I would add is that our research indicates that speed is an issue, and we have not talked about speed of response yet. There certainly is an indication that the first 24 hours are really important in terms of whether somebody gets back to somebody. This is not necessarily about resolving something that could be a complex issue, but the initial contact is very important in terms of whether it is a good experience. You asked about how to improve, and we really need to look at that initial contact, at accountability and at what happens after that particular process, because if we can help the public feel that they had a good initial contact, they are more likely to engage. Obviously, it does not stop there as you need to be able to process that, but the first 24 hours are very important.

Richard Lloyd: We need to recognise that people complaining about public services are often in vulnerable situations or may be vulnerable themselves. They may need someone to help advocate, which is why things such as local healthwatch organisations need to be there, available and offering people advice and holding people’s hands when they need help to complain about their residential care, for example. If you are worried about the repercussions of your complaint, it is helpful to have someone next to you who can help you navigate the process and give you confidence.

Carol Brennan: Cases can be quite complex, particularly care cases. We have been interviewing people recently about their experiences, and they are remarkably patient if they get an outcome that meets their needs. They are not expecting a 24-hour turnaround; they are quite happy to wait a bit, have their case properly investigated and then find out what the outcome is. If that meets their needs, they can be highly satisfied.

Jo Causon: As long as they are communicated with along the way.

Carol Brennan: Yes.

Jo Causon: The important thing is about keeping people informed.

Chair: I like it when you start talking to each other. It’s brilliant.

Q47 Kelvin Hopkins: I have a question for Richard Simmons and Carol Brennan. In your report "Grumbles, Gripes and Grievances", you refer to the need for the public sector to change from being a deliverer of public services to a system whereby the public, private and third sectors provide services. I must say that I fundamentally disagree, but that is neither here nor there.

Isn’t there a real difference between providing public services such as, for example, health, education, social work and children’s services, and buying a television from a big retailer? You know when you go to a big retailer that, if you take the television home and it doesn’t work, you can go back and they will either give you your money back or give you another one off the shelf. They can fix it for you. There is no problem there. If you have a social worker who is under enormous pressure and who loses her or his cool one day and somebody gets upset and complains to their MP, it is a completely different kind of relationship.

First, there is under-supply. It is not a commercial relationship; it has to be based on the public service ethos. We have talked about values.

Chair: What is your question?

Kelvin Hopkins: Isn’t applying the kind of complaints system that you would have in the commercial sector completely wrong in the public sector? Do you not need a different approach?

Carol Brennan: I think you can have some similar principles, and being responsive is an appropriate one. If the public services are buying in private sector services, they could make it a requirement, as part of the contract, to have an effective complaint-handling procedure, and they could dictate what that should look like. We have already given some examples of what a good complaint-handling procedure would look like. That is a way of trying to ensure that people in public services who are receiving something delivered by the private sector can still experience an appropriate system.

Richard Simmons: There are two things that I want to say to your question. First, not every public sector service is the same. We might expect different aspects of redress for, for example, our refuse collection from those for a complex service such as care. We quite agree with you on the need to be sector specific.

The other point is that we might draw from the private sector more in terms of individualised approaches, but we have to recognise that in the public sector there are also collective commitments for these things that do not fit easily within private sector customer service-type models. We need to have ways of channelling the collective views of the public, as well as finding ways for individuals to communicate.

Q48 Kelvin Hopkins: Under the previous Government, community health councils were abolished. There was a strong suggestion that that was because the private sector wanted to take over in health and did not want a strong complaints system where people had a shop front-there was certainly one in my town-where they could walk in and make a complaint about the health service. Even the health service did not like that, but certainly the private sector company did not want that strong, easily accessible complaints system. They wanted that out, and the Government complied with that privately by introducing other systems and getting rid of community health councils, at least in England.

Richard Simmons: The structures have been reorganised many times, and probably for the same reasons.

Carol Brennan: They shouldn’t necessarily be given what they want.

Q49 Kelvin Hopkins: Indeed, but there is a suggestion that Governments do not like complaints and want to make it harder for people to complain. What has happened, of course, is that people tend to go to Members of Parliament now.

Jo Causon: To answer your question on whether there is a significant difference, of course there is greater complexity, and we have already touched on that within the public sector, particularly in certain aspects of it. If you go back to the feedback and research, there is a common set of issues-Carol alluded to this-in both the public and private sectors that can be usefully applied. My issue is that spending all our time on complaint resolution is costly to both private and public and prevents us from doing some of the other things that we should be doing with our time and energy.

We are saying that there are lessons that should be taken and learnt. The customer feedback, or the feedback from citizens, is saying, "We want greater transparency. We want to know how we can complain. We want to raise our points, and we want to be listened to."

Q50 Kelvin Hopkins: But shouldn’t Government ensure that members of the public have strong complaints procedures, on the one hand?

Jo Causon: Yes.

Q51 Kelvin Hopkins: But also, should they not seek to make sure that the public service ethos is what drives public services, and not a simple commercial customer relationship?

Jo Causon: Absolutely. This is about delivering those public services through the values and what we actually stand for.

Q52 Kelvin Hopkins: My final question on this: in France, they have an over-supply of doctors, and therefore doctors in a sense compete with each other for patients and are always trying to be nice to their patients because they want to keep them. In Britain we have the opposite: the lists at doctors’ surgeries are incredibly long; getting an appointment is hard; doctors are under pressure and staff are under pressure. That inevitably means that tensions and stresses arise. Government is constantly trying to cut funding and cut spending, and is forcing commercial pressures on to hospitals. In the extreme, you get Mid Staffs hospital. I think I have made my point.

Richard Lloyd: May I build on what Richard said about getting a sense of collective failings or systemic failings in public services exposed and looked at by those with the powers to deal with them-regulators, in other words? In private markets, my organisation and one or two others can bring a super-complaint to the regulator in banking or, in the case of other private markets, to the Office of Fair Trading, where we can evidence from a lot of customers a systemic problem that is not being dealt with by the providers in that industry. It seems to me that if there is a better, more visible place to go-as someone who uses my local health service-where there is an ability for Healthwatch, say, to compile the evidence of failing and require a regulator or the relevant authority to investigate, that is another way of hopefully avoiding such catastrophic failures. It is getting people to feel that there is a voice that will take their view or their problem collectively to the right authority, and will require some action. That is another example of where there is a very good mechanism in private markets, which we use sparingly, but has very effectively got regulators to intervene where there has been a systemic failure.

Q53 Mr Reed: Unlike Mr Hopkins, I support the premise of your report, to the extent that while I was leading Lambeth we were trying to implement it, along with another group of councils: we wanted the public sector to become a facilitator of services, defined, chosen and to some extent controlled by the people who were using them, because that gave you better outcomes than simply being rigid about which sector the provider came from.

In thinking about that in relation to complaints, would you agree that complaints as a system are never going to be enough to redress the kinds of problems that service users and citizens are experiencing in the public sector, and that what we need to do is integrate service users far more deeply in the design, delivery, ownership and choice of provider of public services, through models such as co-production or citizen-led commissioning? That is a much better model than just trying to tackle complaints.

Richard Simmons: Certainly. I have been a very conscious observer of what has been going on in Lambeth and in other councils that are following Lambeth’s lead on these issues. There is a lot of scope for this to happen in particular areas of the public sector.

Rolling it out for a whole council is problematic; I am sure you are aware of that idea. Having those sets of values in place gives strong leadership and sets a facilitating environment for these things to happen and to spring up, but it has to come from communities themselves: they have to want to take ownership and take control, and to be more co-productive. There has to be the motivation, there have to be the resources and they have to be facilitated in the right way for that to happen.

Carol Brennan: It is also about innovative ways of working together, isn’t it? We gave a nice example in the report, of the Luton and Dunstable head and neck cancer clinic. People felt that their bodies were like a battleground. What they did was have a film made of what their experience was of being a user in the service; they then brought leaders within the organisation together with those who were responsible for complaint handling, and all watched the films together, then developed the service. They brought about something like 40 changes in the service that really transformed people’s experience. They were very simple things. People had time to process the fact that they had cancer and were then given a bit of time before they were then processed through the system, but processed in a much better way.

Jo Causon: I support the point that complaints handling and problem solving is an element of the overall service, or the experience that we are looking to try to create. Going back to the UKCSI, as I have said, customer satisfaction is based on a number of things: the quality of the product or service; the ease of doing business; how the problem was resolved; the timeliness et cetera. You touched on a really important point around co-creation. Certainly our research sees a real increase in people wanting to co-create both product and service. That will be a trend that will continue.

Q54 Mr Reed: I have seen that work in areas as diverse as diabetes management in the health sector, rehabilitating offenders in criminal justice and social work. Lambeth has set up something called TOPAZ, which has dramatically improved the performance of the social work function by mutualising it and giving the front-line staff and the people using it more control over what happens. A question that is often raised is, what do people do if they have a problem with the new way that the service is being made accountable. What is your view about how structures can be put in place to ensure responsiveness to all sectors of the user group rather than the more vocal and articulate members?

Richard Simmons: A range of channels is important. We keep coming back to this point-

Q55 Chair: Which point?

Richard Simmons: The point that a range of channels is important to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to be included. In a mutual scheme such as you described you would expect opportunities for membership as well. It is a question of how you can include people as stakeholders so that they can co-create with a sense of ownership over what is going on. It is not just people being asked to contribute things that might fall on barren ground. So giving people a sense of ownership and inclusion is a good way of binding people in. Then we can start to crowd source these kinds of ideas and really get some energy back.

Carol Brennan: Putting in place more support for vulnerable people too and involving some of those people in the design stage. Some organisations are using people with learning difficulties, for example, to work alongside inspectors of services to ensure that those services are designed more effectively to meet their needs. So they are supported through that process but they have a voice and that is important.

Q56 Mr Reed: May I tackle this question of choice before we go on to the next one? There are many areas in public services where choice is not really an option. If you live in a council house you do not have the option to choose another housing provider. If you have sent your child to a school you don’t want to have to move your child from school to school every year even if there was an opportunity to do that to seek the best education. Empowerment rather than choice of the user seems a better way forward. Richard, as you raised the issue of choice, do you agree or disagree with that?

Richard Lloyd: It depends on the service, doesn’t it? The choice has to be genuine and meaningful and exercisable. As I was saying before, and you were right to pick this up, there are probably very few circumstances where, even if they have the choice, people will switch from one school to another. We all know that is not very often the case. So that pressure is not on the management of schools to worry about retaining the pupils in that way. That is exactly why ensuring that there is a culture of open and well communicated complaints handling, recognising that very often in public services that genuine choice does not exist, is the thing to do. I recognise that it is not the magic solution. It happens in some cases but very often that genuine choice is not available.

Q57 Charlie Elphicke: Mr Lloyd, were you in Tony Blair’s Downing street?

Richard Lloyd: No.

Q58 Charlie Elphicke: Whose Downing street were you in?

Richard Lloyd: I was in the last two years of the last Government.

Q59 Charlie Elphicke: Gordon Brown’s Downing street?

Richard Lloyd: Yes.

Q60 Charlie Elphicke: Mr Hopkins talked about the public service ethos. From your experience, do you share his rosy view of what he described as a public service ethos, or do you think that how we do things needs to be more responsive to what people want to see?

Richard Lloyd: The work I did in Downing street was all about trying to get the then Government to focus more on the consumer, particularly in private markets. I have worked in public services myself; I worked in housing 20 years ago. I have always held the view that there is a long, long way to go before we see public services that are genuinely-this is a sweeping statement-responsive to complaints and that handle complaints effectively.

For the reasons that we have all described, there is a range of barriers. I would support a single portal to get into complaining about public services. I think there are ways you can empower people collectively to bring about complaints.

All sorts of Governments have been talking about this for a very long time. I am pleased that we are, hopefully, focusing on at least the beginning of a discussion about how you tackle that end of exercising genuine consumer power in public services when things go wrong. But there is clearly a much bigger backdrop to this. That is a long answer to your specific question, but it is true to say that the problem has not been properly sorted out yet.

Q61 Mr Reed: Going back to the private sector, I have a chart, which unfortunately you cannot see, that shows that organisations that consistently perform well in customer satisfaction include John Lewis, Waitrose, First Direct and, interestingly, the Co-operative Bank. What makes them so successful at dealing with customers that other organisations are missing?

Jo Causon: I suspect that you are looking at the UK customer satisfaction index, which is produced by the Institute of Customer Service.

Mr Reed: Yes I am. Exactly right.

Jo Causon: If I may, I will answer that. I think they do a range of things extremely well. As I said, the UKCSI is based on five key areas. The first is about your product: is the product good in terms of quality and the experience? Secondly, it is about complaints handling-if I have a problem. Thirdly, is the organisation easy to do business with? Is it acceptable? The fourth area is timeliness. Professionalism is the fifth area: am I dealing with people who are competent and well trained, who understand what the issues are? Am I having a good dialogue and good communication?

Why those organisations score well is broadly because they are doing well in each of those key areas. That is the top level. There are more than 60 questions that sit underneath that. We have been doing the UKCSI since 2008; interestingly-I think I am right in saying this-John Lewis has consistently been in the top 10 throughout that whole period. But it also, as I said, looks across 13 different industry sectors and tracks customer satisfaction across them.

Q62 Mr Reed: Does the model of governance of the organisation have an impact on that?

Jo Causon: That is an interesting question. I have a piece of research in the market looking at different business models. It would be too simplistic to say yes. My gut reaction would be that there is a whole range of things, from leadership to culture to processes. Great organisations align their people, processes and strategy, whatever sector they operate in.

Richard Simmons: That is very true. I would say that there are very good examples of mutuals, such as John Lewis, but there are also less good examples. It is the same anywhere, in the private or public sector. You picked out John Lewis as being at the top end. Jo mentioned that it has been at the top consistently. One of the things about John Lewis is that it instils the same values right the way down, from the chief executive all the way down to the person collecting trolleys from the car park. It makes sure that everyone learns five key values. I cannot remember them all, but they are things like give respect and be honest. These kinds of things are really important. Everyone, if the chief exec goes into the store, is expected to give respect and to be honest with the people he comes into contact with, customers or staff. Once you start instilling those kinds of values consistently throughout an organisation, you start to get somewhere.

Jo Causon: It is not hierarchical. It is an expectation, but that is how we all behave. This is how we do things around here.

Carol Brennan: They do spend a great deal of time training their staff. That is something that is really important, and maybe this is something that could be considered in relation to public services: some kind of accreditation model for people involved in complaint handling at different levels, and more intensive for those who have got senior responsibility. That is something that could be developed and could work effectively.

Jo Causon: And, indeed, there are models that already exist in terms of accreditation and qualifications and supporting.

Q63 Mr Reed: So there are some straightforward approaches that organisations such as the UKBA could adopt, which would be much more likely to deliver a better outcome than just switching control to the Home Office, for instance.

Jo Causon: That is why what we are talking about is leadership from the very top-so back to one of those organisations there. Also-this is an important point to make-if I look at our membership, there are great examples of people within the public sector also leading the way. It is about that absolutely tenacious focus on really developing the end-to-end, overall customer experience.

The only other point I would make is: do consumers differentiate between a public service and a private service? Actually, we do not. There is an expectation that we will get a good experience-

Q64 Mr Reed: Since you mentioned leadership-this relates to a piece of work that we were doing on the civil service, and some of the things that go wrong there-politicians quite often feel the need to be seen to be doing something to fulfil a short-term need from the media, but doing that can send the wrong signal to the organisation that you are trying to shift.

To be even-handed about this, when John Reid became Home Secretary and described the Home Office as being "not fit for purpose," he told all his staff that they were no good, which was not a good way to motivate them. Theresa May, in just rebadging the UKBA, has not really addressed any of the underlying problems. The problem seems to be the way that politicians, or leaders in this case, were exhibiting the wrong type of leadership. Is that true?

Richard Simmons: There can be a disconnect sometimes between the politics and the realpolitik on the ground, definitely.

Richard Lloyd: There is definitely an issue of consistency. If you look at some of those organisations, when we do customer satisfaction surveys, one of the things that we find time and again is a very consistent and clear strategy that puts the customer first, and incentivises front-line staff to put the customer first.

At some of the organisations that you have listed, you will find that their senior team have been there for a very long time, living that ethos. If there is a constant change of strategy and emphasis, the signal you send to front-line people, who are going to be the first port of call when there is a complaint or a problem, is confused. Consistency and a clear long-term strategy is one of the fundamentals for those successful private businesses.

Certainly, public sector leaders could learn a lot-as we do in the private sector-from looking hard at how the best performing businesses are getting that culture right. One of the things that we do at Which? is get out customer service people to spend some time at some of the best performing customer service centres in the country, so that they can learn from the best new practices. Why can’t we do more of that in the public sector?

Jo Causon: I also think that it is the alignment, at all levels-from the very top, all the way through to middle management, and through to the front line-and making sure that there is clear communication about why customer services are important, and how we are actually handling that through to customers.

Carol Brennan: It is also about reporting back effectively. We use a system in the university, where the students said something, of "You said. We did". That is a quite simple way of communicating that something has been done to satisfy their particular needs.

Kelvin Hopkins: I had covered my next question, but I still want to make a point, which I hope that you will accept-

Chair: I think that you made your point.

Kelvin Hopkins: There is a fundamental difference. My colleague, Mr Reed, talked about the border agency being moved backwards and forwards from being in the Home Office and being an arm’s length organisation.

The nature of the work that they do is quite different from a retailer supplying goods. With retailers, you just get another one off the shelf or your money back and that is easy. But dealing with immigration is very difficult and fraught; to a lesser extent, education, health, social services-all have that kind of relationship, and dealing with problems and complaints in those areas is quite a different matter from dealing with a retailer.

Q65 Chair: Just about complaints about staff, very often, the complaints are about people in the organisation, not just about the service, particularly when a complaint escalates. I would submit that our public services are less good at dealing with that kind of complaint, particularly because the customer has nowhere else to go. Do you think that is a fair prejudice to have? How do you think public sector organisations address that? What is the key component?

Richard Simmons: You may be over-generalising a little. There are times when consumers feel there is nowhere else to go, but there are usually other channels-going to their MP would be one of them-if they feel that they are not getting heard or that there is some kind of closing of ranks among the professionals to shut them out.

Q66 Chair: The culture of denial?

Richard Simmons: Yes. Usually people in our research are aware of those other channels and they are prepared to use them if they have to, but they think of their MPs as being pretty busy people and they do not want to disturb them with something if they feel that they can resolve it themselves. They will do their best to resolve it themselves first, and if they are unable to do so-

Q67 Chair: The point is, what should the organisation do to deal with the culture of denial? It exists in both public and private sector organisations.

Jo Causon: Overall, you are absolutely right. Going back to our research, 75% of complaints cite competence, attitude or an organisation not keeping its promises. That is also true for the public sector. In terms of what an organisation should be doing about that, in any sector, this comes back to the point about training and developing people, creating the right values, leading from the top, making sure that we recruit in the light of the service that we are looking to deliver, and creating people with much higher emotional intelligence skills, as I would call them, which are around listening, engaging and seeing an issue as something we should be doing something about because we can improve it, on the back of: "The reason why we should be doing that is that it makes us more efficient, it makes us more effective and it is a better overall experience."

Carol Brennan: I want to say something about effective leadership and supporting staff, and making sure that services are properly resourced. Sometimes the complaints can be because people are under too much pressure to deliver.

Chair: Okay. We are going to come to leadership. I think a lot of complaints about staff may actually be about a failure of leadership, but we will come to that later.

Q68 Charlie Elphicke: On complaints handling, it has been suggested that the public sector has failed to adopt a positive approach to complaints because it does not have the competitive pressure that other sectors have, which I alluded to in some of my earlier supplementaries. What do you make of that?

Richard Lloyd: I agree. I think we all know, and you said it yourself, that there are some service providers who are confident that whatever they do to their service users, they will not have any option to go elsewhere. Therefore, the backdrop to effective, responsive complaints handling must be-where this can be done-some form of ability for people to vote with their feet. That is partly why complaints are such a big deal in the private sector, because if people complain about what my organisation does, they can go elsewhere and buy our products and services elsewhere. How you inject that sense of meaningful, genuine choice in a broader range of public services has to be part of the backdrop to this.

Q69 Charlie Elphicke: Would you get rid of GP catchment areas and allow complete school choice and hospital choice?

Richard Lloyd: I would where that is possible. There are constraints to this, aren’t there? There is a practical constraint to this, but I would enable people to make a choice about their GP outwith their catchment area, and I am pleased that the Government is about to do that.

Q70 Charlie Elphicke: Would you encourage more public sector mutuals as well, like Mr Reed was talking about, which are smaller, fleet of foot and less bureaucratic?

Richard Lloyd: I think a more diverse range of providers has to be part of that picture, absolutely. Bringing a different way of doing things, and showing that there is a more customer/client-centric way of doing things, has to be part of the challenge to the incumbent provider.

Q71 Charlie Elphicke: So public services, in your view, should be about serving us, not serving themselves? Building in, if you like, the ability that I can say, "I can go elsewhere," you think is a critical part in making sure that they focus on complaints and on the service?

Richard Lloyd: Where that is practical and affordable, absolutely. Service should be all about the outcome for the individual, rather than about institutional structures.

Q72 Charlie Elphicke: But how do you actually get people to switch? A lot of the work that Which? does, where you are now, is looking at switching between the big utility companies-we have a massive oligopoly in our utilities-and they are very reluctant to switch. We have a massive banking oligopoly, and people are reluctant to switch their bank accounts when Ulster Bank completely fails to do payments for days on end: they do not move that much even in Northern Ireland, where that happened. How do we get people to exercise that choice to ensure that public service providers or big businesses-broadly the same sort of thing-are more responsive to the customer?

Richard Lloyd: Getting anyone to engage in any market or any range of service providers has to be about showing that there is a genuinely better offer elsewhere. If I am complaining that I am unhappy with my GP, but I know that the other GP down the road is going to be equally unresponsive to my needs, that is not going to encourage me to vote with my feet, as it were. In part, it is about getting data or information out to people about what else is there, about differences in service provision that might suit me better, and giving me the means to exercise that choice.

It is complicated and, as you rightly say, in private markets it is not the silver bullet either, but at least it is a start in giving people much more information about what else they might do. In maternity services, for example, which we have been looking at recently, you often do have a genuine choice of which hospital to go to where you can have the service provided, but it is quite hard to get really good information about the differences in those choices I want to make. You need to equip people and give them a meaningful choice that they can exercise if service providers are to feel pressure to be responsive and improve the quality of service.

Jo Causon: In effect, we do not want people to be switching. If you look at the John Lewises and so on, they are very keen to ensure retention. My point is that if any organisation is serious about this, then they really need to understand the requirements and needs of the customer. If they fulfil those requirements and needs and deal with that in an appropriate way-all the things we have been talking about-that should help to reduce the whole issue in terms of how many complaints there are and enable us as organisations to focus on what we are going to try to deliver. For me, it is about a focus on understanding the needs-

Q73 Charlie Elphicke: I think that is part of it. Some years ago, I used to be a councillor on Lambeth when it was completely bent and put through, with a team-the cabinet system-massive reforms to clean it up, so that they could vote in Mr Reed and his colleagues afterwards. That leadership came from the top to deal with a failing organisation, sort out the finances and improve things. One lesson I learned is that it is always the vulnerable people who pay the price when government fails and all of us, as leaders in our nation, need to bear that in mind. Would you agree?

Jo Causon: Yes, I would agree.

Richard Simmons: Two things in your question are worth picking up. First, I think it was Julian Le Grand at the LSE who said that "Choice gives power to voice," so there is definitely that side of things. That is coming from quite an individualistic perspective, and when we are looking at collective choice-giving power to collective voice-sometimes the mutual idea, which you were asking about, might be an appropriate way forward.

Q74 Mr Reed: I just wanted to clarify my position on the mutual thing. I was not arguing that mutuals are a way to solve problems necessarily; the problem is the disempowerment of the user relative to the provider, and mutuals may help to address that; but they do not always and there are other ways to do it.

Isn’t the problem not a lack of choice or competitive pressure, but that there’s often no existential threat to the staff member’s job if they fail to meet or to respond to the needs of the service user in the public sector? If they are doing a bad job, they just continue, because the users have no ability to get rid of them. If you can use other models, such as tenant-managed estates, for example, where there is an elected board of tenants on an estate and the housing managers report to that board-if they are not doing what the tenants want, they get sacked, so they then quite quickly start to respond more directly to the needs of the tenants. You don’t need choice in there; you just need power.

Carol Brennan: I think that could make for a more defensive approach to complaint handling. What you are really looking to do is to support staff and train them effectively so that they do a good job. If you recruit the right people and train them, they do a good job. It is the leadership that takes the responsibility for that.

Q75 Mr Reed: Relating that to complaints, though, when I was a councillor, and an estate in my area moved to tenant management, the number of complaints I received went from very high to zero, because people were now able to deal with the problems themselves. Isn’t that what we are really looking for?

Jo Causon: But that is about having a work force that is well engaged, is communicated to, understands its parameters and feels empowered to deliver.

Q76 Mr Reed: But they have the incentive to do that, because they can be got rid of by the service users.

Jo Causon: Any form of performance management is an important part of managing and leading people.

Richard Simmons: It is the same for the public sector as it would be in a tenant management organisation. What you were saying about public sector workers not being able to be sacked just sounded like bad management in the public sector. We should have systems in place so that if people are not performing in the public sector-

Chair: The word "leadership" keeps coming up.

Q77 Greg Mulholland: The word "leadership" has come up a lot, but I don’t think we have addressed the obvious question. If you look back at the particularly extreme example of the Francis report on the failings of the Mid Staffordshire trust and the awful things that happened there, it highlighted serious failures and said that the board "did not listen sufficiently to its patients or its staff or ensure the correction of deficiencies brought to the Trust’s attention". In evidence to us, the ombudsman said: "Good complaint handling requires strong and effective leadership. Those at the top of a public service should take the lead in ensuring good complaint handling, with regard to both practice and culture." When it comes to public sector bodies, the obvious question is, do you think there is the same sort of leadership on action and culture all the way through the public sector and into Government as there is in the private sector, where it is very much a given?

Carol Brennan: I certainly read a number of ombudsman reports that point to the need for boards to take much more responsibility, and I would agree with that. That is something boards should monitor very closely, on an ongoing basis. They should be saying what they are doing in relation to the complaints that are coming to the organisation and ensuring effective management and leadership at different levels in their organisation-that can be incredibly complicated in the health service. They should keep track of those complaints, and they should innovate in relation to them and transform services, rather than just allowing complaints to be dealt with somewhere else.

Richard Simmons: I think we have to look to create open and learning organisations where leaders are prepared to empower staff at the right level so that they take leadership-to distribute leadership down through the organisation so that people take responsibility at the right levels. Often, leaders in bureaucratic organisations can become bottlenecks because things have to be channelled up through them. That can become toxic for leaders at the top of those organisations. We have come across people in the health service who have said, "I can’t take this complaint as high as the chief executive, because by the time it reaches that stage, it becomes toxic, and it is the chief exec’s head on the line. I’m told to keep it down to a lower level to avoid that nuclear button being pressed." Sometimes we have to think about the way we establish public service structures and how we maintain public sector organisations as open and learning organisations so that they can distribute leadership in a way that lets people take responsibility at the right level.

Q78 Greg Mulholland: What about Government itself? In the end, most public services, local government aside, are the responsibility of Government, and therefore Ministers and the Cabinet, to deliver-however they choose to do that, and through whatever mechanisms and sectors. Is there a problem that, while we might have parliamentary accountability, there is no acceptance or understanding of complaints in Government and at the highest levels of Government Departments, on the civil service side and the political side? The evidence we have had from the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council says: "A crucial problem is that accountability within Government for leadership and governance of the complaints system is currently not clear." Do you think we need to look above even the chief executives of those organisations, to the higher echelons of Government?

Richard Lloyd: I think you are absolutely right. If you ask the chief executive of a hospital why they are not focusing on a particular dimension of complaints, they will say, "I’ve heard this week yet again from the NHS about a different approach I’ve got to take." There has to be a step back and a look at the context in which those who run organisations and handle complaints have to operate. Of course, the ultimate complaint is how you vote in a general election, I guess. But if senior civil servants and Ministers are to be accountable for how things are run under their departmental control while they are setting strategy and so on, there really ought to be some mechanism for people to ensure that the complaint they are making and the data that it creates, in aggregate form, are being looked at and that very senior civil servants and Ministers are accountable for what is going on in their area of control.

Jo Causon: Also, that reporting should remain visible, and it should be visible at the most senior levels. To go back to the private sector, in those organisations that do well, the equivalent is the boardroom. It is discussed at the highest levels, and people refer to what is going on and what is being done. If it is visible and it is being measured, there is a general chance that something is more likely to happen as a result. I would also say that sometimes we measure the wrong things, but that goes back to really understanding what it is that people require and where improvement is needed.

Carol Brennan: One of the recommendations we made in our report was about statutory reporting of complaint data from Government Departments and bodies, so that there is a clear view of what the position is and what is being done in relation to those complaints. I think that would be a great help; also, more learning across Government Departments. As I mentioned earlier, someone’s complaint could go to a number of different places, so some kind of joined-up system to make it easier for people is also important.

Richard Simmons: That is a really good contribution. At the moment, it is a muddle. Trying to get hold of statistics from Government Departments to show complaint trends is very difficult. They clearly do not know themselves, or they are not being published, or they are being published in many different forms. It is very difficult to pull out the trends that are comparable from Government statistics.

We’ve been talking here about politicians and people high up in the civil service taking account, listening and engaging with this kind of data. Mr Reed was talking earlier about politicians responding to the media, and of course that will be a big focus, but drawing on some of this data also gives useful information that can hopefully be brought into decision making, so that it is not just responding to the daily pressures of the media.

Q79 Greg Mulholland: Do you think there is a need to formalise accountability for complaints handling? The social fund commissioner said: "Given that effective complaints handling requires commitment from senior leaders, there is an argument for appointing someone to provide a focus for leadership and governance of complaint systems across Departments and their agencies." Should we have one person who is responsible for complaints handling in each Government Department? Should we even have one person who has that responsibility for Government as a whole?

Richard Simmons: So long as they do not become the bottleneck again, and they distribute leadership down through the chain and make sure people stay accountable at all the different levels. If they just become the one focus for everything, they are the scapegoat and everyone else goes on as they were before.

Carol Brennan: Certainly, but in Scotland, we have the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, who looks at a number of different public services. That makes life easier, because complaints are escalated there, and there is then oversight across a number of different Government Departments. That can make a huge difference.

Richard Lloyd: Visibility is key. If, in the end, there are too many people responsible for different dimensions of public service provision, and there is no one whom you know and whom you can summon to talk to you about why there is a rise in complaints in the health service this year, you will never get someone leading and driving an improved complaints handling culture, which I think is absolutely the right way to go.

Q80 Chair: The Francis report highlighted lack of leadership as one of the reasons for the failures of Mid Staffordshire, and this comes back to the point about supporting staff who are receiving complaints. What do you do about an organisation that has become deaf to what people are saying within that organisation to the chain of command? Is that very common? Do you see a lot of that as you look at complaints systems?

Jo Causon: I would argue that it is becoming less common, because of the consequences of not listening. As we have already said, because of things like social media and consumers having a stronger voice, they are more likely to be able to voice their complaints. There are other outside organisations-consumer watchdogs and so on-that are also raising those issues. It is absolutely critical that, with any organisation, there are very clear ways of being able to address an issue internally and, if it does not get resolved within the organisation, outside that organisation.

Richard Lloyd: In our experience, there are not that many private sector organisations that are not very sensitive to a public criticism from the likes of Which? Very often we will talk privately to a business leader whose firm we have found failing and say, "We are about to publish this, what are you going to do about it?" and nine times out of 10 we get a very good response. In the case of the one time out of 10-for example, with some of the budget airlines-we will then escalate that issue to the regulator, particularly if we have found evidence of a breach of the law or the rules. Again, part of the process of accountability and part of the use of information about complaints must be a proactive regulator who, where there is a clear emerging picture of systemic failure in a public sector institution, is willing to intervene in a really good, effective way. Part of the failing in the past has been the absence of such intervention, not just on the part of the institution itself, but of those charged with having an oversight of it and protecting people whose complaints were not being heard.

Q81 Chair: As MPs, we endlessly come across things, but bear in mind that we get the jaundiced view, because people come and complain to us-they do not come and tell us when it is all going brilliantly. People come and tell us things, and we meet people in public sector organisations who will quietly tell us that the same things keep going wrong and no one puts them right-the same complaints keep being made. One can think of some very typical examples, such as in the process for assessing disability in the disability claims system, where the same mistakes keep being made. Something like 50% of refusals go to an appeal, and a significant number of those appeals overturn the original decision. In the health service, one comes across the same complaints being made. What is wrong with the system that it does not learn to correct itself?

Richard Simmons: It is not recording things properly-that is a huge problem.

Q82 Chair: So it is a process problem.

Richard Simmons: It is partly a process problem, yes. I would not say it is all about that, but recording is a huge problem and the title of our report, "Grumbles, gripes and grievances", reflects this. Often it is things that do not get recorded well at all. In our study, we found that 80% of people had expressed their views at some time or another, through one channel or another. When I reported that back to the service providers, they said, "No, that must be wrong. We only ever hear from a small percentage of our people. We think we are doing fine." Those other 60% or 70% of people whom they did not think they were hearing from were all expressing views, but they were expressing views to people on the front line, and there were no systems for recording that information and no easy way to channel it up.

Q83 Chair: I can imagine people creating a horribly bureaucratic system of recording complaints when in fact those complaints should just be dealt with immediately.

Richard Simmons: That is true, but it is does not have to be horribly bureaucratic-there are ways of automating such things these days. For example, banks are listening very carefully to telephone complaints and thinking about what is going on. If they see patterns and trends in people complaining about small things, but often, they escalate their action and look at the root causes.

Q84 Chair: But in Mid Staffordshire, they did not need systems. There are plenty of hospitals that do hear the complaints.

Richard Simmons: That was a cultural problem.

Q85 Chair: It was a cultural problem and a lack-of-trust problem. It was a poor governance problem. Jo Causon, I think you are itching to say something.

Jo Causon: I think it is a combination of both. So as we have started this conversation, culture is a key element of being able to deliver the rightful and appropriate service. It goes back to the sense of leadership. Monitoring, benchmarking and processes also need to be established.

Q86 Chair: How do you embed that into learning and improvement?

Jo Causon: By seeing that as part of people’s objectives. It is about holding them to account in terms of delivery against those objectives, and about reward and recognition. How do we reward and recognise people for actually delivering that? It is not always a financial reward, which is an important point to consider. Again, it is back to this whole piece about exhibiting as leaders what is and what is not acceptable.

Q87 Chair: I am glad that you said that about recognition. Do you agree that performance management can be rather corrosive, because it creates an adversarial relationship between leaders and staff rather than an open and trusting one that will enable things to happen more effectively?

Jo Causon: I think performance management is all about creating a solid and good working relationship between the manager and the employee. The manager has responsibilities in terms of being clear about what those accountabilities and expectations are. Whatever term you use, this is about managing and leading our people appropriately and creating an environment that is not based on fear or a punitive arrangement, but is genuinely based on a respected relationship in terms of being able to give that feedback.

Q88 Chair: We have this cross-governmental network for complaints handling in Whitehall, which is chaired by a permanent secretary in the DWP. Do you sense it is delivering anything in terms of service improvement as it oversees this network of complaints?

Carol Brennan: I think it could have a higher profile-certainly after looking for information about it. It would be really interesting to know a lot more about what it is achieving and what the learning is that is coming from that and how that is being shared across the sector to improve the system for people.

Q89 Chair: Any other comments on this network?

Richard Lloyd: They say it is practically invisible-

Q90 Chair: Did you not set it up?

Richard Lloyd: Not me personally. Its lack of public profile has to say something about its ability to have an impact.

Q91 Chair: It suggests that it is not part of the mainstream business of Government. They are all busy doing other things.

Richard Lloyd: It would look like a fringe activity. If complaints experts do not know much about what it is up to, it suggests at the least that it is not communicating what it is up to very well.

Jo Causon: I think your point is important. It needs to be seen-so customer service needs to be seen as a main part of the business of Parliament.

Q92 Chair: What recommendation should our Committee make to the Cabinet Secretary and the head of the civil service about how Whitehall should improve the handling of complaints?

Carol Brennan: It could put in place a much more simplified process for people. Earlier, I mentioned a two-stage process that we are using in Scotland and that is being rolled out across different sectors. That would be one way of doing things but, obviously, reporting on how complaints have been used to improve services and transform them would be extremely interesting. Often what we hear about is the bad news, and it would be really good to hear some of the good news about what has come from complaints. We certainly tried to highlight some examples in our report, but those changes take place over a number of years. I think there could be more regular reporting of recent interesting examples, and that would encourage that innovation to take place.

Q93 Chair: Anybody else? Your Nesta report had some excellent recommendations of course, but most of them address process questions rather than values and leadership questions. What is wrong with values and leadership that sidelines this to a fringe activity?

Richard Simmons: I think that values and leadership are incredibly important but coming up with firm recommendations is quite difficult. We have recently been doing some work with the Care Inspectorate in Scotland and have looked at its recommendations. Although we know that cultural factors underpin many of the issues that arise, coming up with recommendations for firm things to do has been difficult, so that tends to mean that process recommendations are made as well.

One thing we have been exploring as a result of that is having a focus on outcomes rather than process, and getting people to think about how to achieve such outcomes. Then you start to explore how the values need to mesh together more closely, how we must make sure that people are not too distant from each other to be able to communicate effectively, and to make sure that we cascade values down through the organisation and distribute leadership in public sector organisations in ways that make it more effectively distributed.

Richard Lloyd: It seems to me that this is a classic ministerial job. There are quite a few Ministers in the Cabinet Office these days, and one of them should be responsible for looking across Whitehall at how data from complaints could be aggregated and collected more systematically and acted on more efficiently, and how consumers-our customers and clients-should be able better to report complaints. With respect, perhaps one of your recommendations might be to Cabinet Office Ministers about how they take a leadership role from the centre of government.

Jo Causon: To go back to the point about really focusing and embedding the right management and leadership, and the right openness in terms of culture, I think that focusing on that from the top through the various layers is absolutely critical.

Q94 Chair: Thank you very much indeed for a very rich and interesting session to start off our inquiry, and thank you for the evidence you submitted in writing. Are you burning to add any last point? Good, you are exhausted. Thank you very much indeed.

Prepared 2nd July 2013