Complaints: do they make a difference?

Written evidence submitted by By Elizabeth Derrington (Independent Complaints Reviewer for Land Registry and Partner with the Independent Complaint Resolution Service (ICRS)), Jodi Berg (Independent Complaints Reviewer for the National Archives, The Children’s Commissioner for Wales and partner with ICRS) and Ros Gardner (partner with ICRS)

We are specialists in the field of complaint handling and dispute resolution in the public sector, currently providing external complaint review services for Land Registry and the Solicitors Regulation Authority. We are active members of the Ombudsman Association (OA), and Elizabeth Derrington is a current member of the OA’s Executive Committee. We believe that we can shed light on a number of the questions the Committee is looking into.

Summary

We address questions 1-6 only as these are the areas in which we have most direct experience. Our main points are as follows:

1. Objectives and design of complaints systems Complaints systems should be accessible, accountable and consistent in approach, but flexible enough to meet different needs. They should also provide value for money and contribute to service improvements. They should include provision for external review.

2. Using complaints to improve service Land Registry has a well-established system for ensuring that complaints are used to improve service to customers. It is a model that could be useful elsewhere.

3. How quickly do complaints systems deal with legitimate grievances and provide redress? It is best for complaints to be resolved quickly and simply as close as possible to the source of the problem. If this is not possible there should be a clear escalation process. It is essential to maintain throughout a sense of momentum towards resolution.

4. How easy is it to complain? Government departments should take responsibility for recognising dissatisfaction and implementing the relevant complaints process. Swift complaint recognition and a clear complaint pathway maximise the chances of resolving the complaint, and keep costs to a minimum.

5. Non-judicial and judicial investigations and remedies There is potential to reduce costs and improve outcomes by being clearer about the relationship between judicial and non-judicial investigations.

6. Public awareness Public bodies and companies in the private sector should take responsibility for making service users/customers aware of their complaints policies and procedures, including the option of independent review.

1. What objectives should Ministers adopt when considering how complaints

about Government and about public services provided by Government are

handled?

All those using public services should have a clear route for raising concerns and complaints.

For the benefit of service users, and to ensure public credibility, complaints systems should be:

· Easy to access and use - information about the system should be readily available to all service users; there should be a clear pathway through the system, with information at each stage about next steps.

· Accountable – there should be clear standards and targets, and published reports on performance.

· Consistent in approach – systems should be based on consistent principles (the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman Principles of good complaint handling are generally accepted within the complaint handling community), and follow recognisably similar procedures.

· Flexible and responsive to the needs of different users including those who are vulnerable, disengaged, or excluded.

· Able to deliver timely and appropriate corrective action and/or redress.

· Include arrangements for independent review.

For the benefit of service providers and the public in general complaints systems should be:

· Designed to contribute to improvements in service delivery and reduce complaints.

· Able to reflect the specific needs and characteristics of different organisations.

· Designed and implemented so as to provide value for money – by ensuring that complaints are handled proportionately and efficiently and that the lessons of complaints feed-back directly into better service delivery.

The criteria we have proposed draw on recent research by Varda Bondy and Andrew Le Sueur for the Public Law Project (Designing redress: a study about grievances against public bodies published August 2012 www.publiclawproject.org.uk). The research report compares different complains systems and aims to identify the principles that make for effectiveness.

2. How effectively do Government departments and public service providers use

complaints to improve the service provided?

In our experience service providers do not, in general, have effective mechanisms for ensuring that the lessons of complaints feed back directly into better service delivery. A striking exception is Land Registry, which has a well established and effective system using complaints to drive customer service improvements. A team of staff from a range of disciplines meets regularly to address recommendations the ICR has made in reports on complaints. The role of the team includes deciding what action to take, and planning and monitoring implementation of change. The team has been responsible for overseeing close to 100 different changes in practice and procedure. The attached article (Learning from complaints: completing the virtuous circle published in the Ombudsman Association Newsletter April 2012) describes Land Registry's system in more detail.

3. How quickly do complaints systems deal with legitimate grievances and

provide redress?

Often not quickly enough. It is fairly obvious that the sooner a grievance is resolved the better. For this to happen the first requirement is that the customer's dissatisfaction should be recognised promptly. Staff need to be clear about what constitutes a complaint, to know that recording a complaint will be seen as a positive action, and to have authority to provide immediate redress. In our experience, failure to recognise complaints when they are raised is a significant delaying factor. For complaints that are not resolved immediately there should be a clear escalation process with set timescales at each stage. It is fair to say that customers, especially where the issues are complex, may not be concerned so much about the absolute speed of response as to know that the problem is being looked into and when they can expect to receive a response. Nonetheless it is important that timeliness is monitored and that causes of delay are eliminated.

4. How easy is it to make a complaint about a Government department or agency,

and how could this be improved?

In our experience this varies. The essential first step is that users should be directed to information about the relevant complaints procedure. Depending on the nature of the relationship between the department/agency and its service users, this may be most appropriately provided in the letter giving notification of a decision or in response to an expression of dissatisfaction. It is also essential that it should be easy to find information about how to complain on the department/agency's website.

The idea of a single point of contact is mentioned at question 9. In principle we are supportive of the idea. It is important, however, that potential complainants should be aware of it, and should not add to cost for service providers. It is also essential that the information provided should be accurate and up to date. We suggest that it would be worth exploring the possibility of this service being provided by the Ombudsman Association (whose website already includes a section to help members of the public find the right ombudsman for their complaints).

As already mentioned it is important that complaints procedures should be accessible to vulnerable, disengaged, or excluded groups, and simple to follow. Departments/agencies and their staff also require ongoing support and encouragement to see complaints in a positive light, as a tool for improvement, rather than as evidence of failure.

5. Do complaints-handling systems achieve the right balance between non judicial

and judicial investigations and remedies?

Complaints handling systems focus on administrative/service issues while judicial investigations look at decisions and decision-making. In our experience, however, grievances raised by service users often relate both to administrative/service issues and also to decisions. It is confusing for the service users to be told that there are quite separate procedures for addressing the different strands of their complaints.

It is difficult to see a way of removing this confusion entirely without major restructuring of the whole of administrative justice. We believe, however, that it would be worth exploring the benefits of more interaction between courts/tribunals and complaint handlers. Often complaint investigations are suspended to wait for the outcome of judicial proceedings (though the court tribunal may well not be aware of the existence of the complaint). This delays resolution of the complaint, sometimes for many months. In fact, however, the issues addressed by the court/tribunal and the complaint handler are quite discrete. Liaison between complaint-handlers and courts/tribunals could identify cases where resolution of administrative/service issues would simplify the judicial decision and vice versa. In addition service users would experience a much more 'joined-up' approach to their problems.

6. How aware are service users of the various ombudsmen (such as the Local

Government Ombudsman, Financial Ombudsman and the Housing

Ombudsman)?

The internet has made it much easier for service users to research options for pursuing complaints. The determined complainant has little difficulty in obtaining information about available ombudsmen and external complaint reviewers. But this does not take into account the perspective of vulnerable, disengaged and excluded groups. It is essential, therefore, that departments/agencies/organisations, when giving final responses to complaints, should clearly signpost the option of requesting an independent review by an ombudsman or external complaint reviewer.

May 2013

Prepared 28th June 2013