25.In its written evidence the PHSO reported that
… we completed fewer cases in 2017–18 than the previous year and our waiting times increased.
As well as a 37% reduction in the number of investigations completed, the PHSO also saw a backlog of cases awaiting assessment build up during 2017/18 peaking at 2,100 cases awaiting assessment in January 2018. The average length of time for an investigation to be completed remained at 234 days, the same as the previous year which Amanda Campbell had described as unacceptable to the Committee in 2017.
26.This fall in performance was, the PHSO argued, owing to the “investment in recruitment and training” it had undertaken during the year reducing its productivity in the short-term. Ms Campbell had predicted this would occur in evidence to the Committee in 2017. This investment was part of the Ombudsman’s “rebuilding exercise” after he took over the role in April 2017. This was a task he described as “playing the piano and moving it upstairs at the same time” as he sought to “transform [the PHSO’s] operations and deliver our service at the same time”. Specifically just under a quarter of the PHSO’s posts had been transferred from London to Manchester, resulting in a need to recruit and train a “whole tranche of new, young graduates” to fill posts left by “experienced case handlers as a result of the move”. Introducing a new case handling model during the period to streamline and improve how complaints are dealt with had required over 2,000 days of training for caseworkers, new and old. Amanda Campbell reported that during the current financial year (2018/19) they had seen “significant productivity” improvements in response to this investment, and as a result the backlog had been reduced to “frictional” levels reflecting the number of complaints arriving each month.
27.This picture of a temporary dip in performance resulting from the restructuring and relocation is supported by the findings of the peer review panel. It reported that the restructuring necessary to manage the PHSO’s reduced budget as well as the other challenges it faced had resulted in significant disruption, but in August 2018 when their study visit took place the panel found that it was “beginning to prove effective”.
28.The PHSO’s dip in productivity in 2017/18 is unfortunate, especially following its performance in previous years. The Committee is very aware that this means that some individuals have suffered delays and poor service from the PHSO. However, it accepts that it is likely to be a consequence of the restructuring the Ombudsman had to carry out in 2017/18. Given the PHSO’s evidence that the position had already improved in the current year and the backlog of cases had been cleared, the Committee expects to see improvements in 2018/19 and beyond.
29.The PHSO introduced its Service Charter in the summer of 2016. This sets out 14 commitments to complainants about the service they can expect. The PHSO publishes quarterly reports on its internal Casework Process Assurance against them, and the results of an independent survey of the views of 600 complainants. The Service Charter is split into three themes:
In December 2017 Amanda Campbell explained to the Committee that there were no comparable organisations with similar data and therefore the PHSO would be tracking its performance over time rather than against external benchmarks.
Figure 1 sets out the average score for each theme for 2016/17 and 2017/18.
30.In their report the Peer Review panel confirmed that the PHSO’s service charter was more sophisticated than most other UK public service ombudsmen, and that it represented an “impressive” amount and quality of data. In his oral evidence Chris Gill confirmed that the quality of the customer satisfaction data they had been able to access gave the panel confidence in their conclusions on the quality of the PHSO’s service.
31.As is clear from figure 1, although the customer charter scores are stable a significant gap persists between the score derived from the PHSO’s own casework process assurance and that from the complainant feedback survey. The PHSO explain this in large part as a result of complainant’s views being influenced by the outcome of their complaint, with 85% of people whose complaint is upheld satisfied with the PHSO’s service but only 49% of those whose complaint is not upheld. Some complainants take the view that their negative view of the PHSO is a result of a perceived failure to investigate their complaint properly, which leads to a wrong decision not to uphold it, rather than the decision itself.
32.Large gaps also persist on some individual commitments. For example, on commitment 8, “We will gather all the information we need, including from you and the organisation you have complained about before we make our decision” the gap in 2017/18 between the internal casework process assurance and complaints’ views was 52 percentage points, compared to 53 in 2016/17. Amanda Campbell accepted that the score was “much lower than I would want”. She explained that the service charter data had been used to inform the design and content of the revised training for staff in order to address the issues it identified.
33.Last year the Committee highlighted the fact that the PHSO did not ask complainants views on the PHSO’s commitment that “we will evaluate the information we’ve gathered and make an impartial decision on your complaint”. It recommended that the PHSO included the question in the future, given the importance of being perceived as impartial to the Ombudsman’s effectiveness. Perceived bias by PHSO staff towards public sector bodies and professionals remained a common theme in many of the written submissions the Committee received for this inquiry.
34.The PHSO has not added a question on impartiality to their complaint feedback survey as part of the service charter. Amanda Campbell explained that as part of their re-tendering of the charter they would be seeking to include focus groups to provide qualitative feedback, including potentially on issues of impartiality. However, she maintained that the impact of the PHSO’s decisions on individual complaints “clouded” people’s ability to assess the Ombudsman’s impartiality.
35.It is encouraging that the complainant feedback remained broadly stable during a period when, by its own admission, the PHSO’s productivity dropped and backlogs built up. From a single year’s figures, it is impossible to know if this is because the PHSO was successful in maintaining the quality of its service, even as it processed fewer cases more slowly, or if complainants’ views as measured by the service charter are independent of the organisation’s actual performance. We therefore expect to see an improvement in the service charter scores in the current and future years because of the Ombudsman’s restructuring. Given that the PHSO has used the service charter to focus its revised training for staff on the areas where it is currently weakest we also expect to see this significant investment to be reflected in better scores in these areas.
36.Impartiality is the only issue the PHSO does not ask for complainant feedback on. As the Committee concluded last year public confidence in the Ombudsman’s impartiality is core to his role. It is inevitable that the outcome of their specific complaint will colour some complainant’s views of the PHSO. This, however, as the PHSO has strenuously argued, is true of many of the subjective issues the complainant feedback survey asks about. It is unclear why perceptions of impartiality are a special case that is not open to quantitative analysis.
37.The Committee welcomes the PHSO’s commitment to introduce a qualitative assessment of complainant’s views of impartiality in the next service charter tender. However, unless strong evidence is provided to show why it is a special case, we stand by our recommendation that a question on impartiality should be included in the service charter survey.
38.The Peer Review Panel’s report concluded that in-terms of human resources, financial monitoring, corporate services as well the organisation’s cultures and values, the “basic components of a well-managed public body… had previously not been in place or had not been working well.” As a result the PHSO’s annual accounts for 2014/15 had been qualified by the National Audit Office and delivered late for 2015/16. With regard to staff morale, according to Peter Tyndall, the Peer Review Panel “were astonished by the staff survey figures before the change process began—astonished”, and concluded that the organisation was at a “very low ebb”.
39.The peer review concluded that the PHSO now had internal management systems and process in in place that conformed “to sound management practice”. They also reported “very positive views expressed by staff members” who were “unanimous in their praise of the Ombudsman and the Chief Executive [Amanda Campbell]”. These conclusions are reinforced by the PHSO’s staff survey results. The overall staff engagement index has risen from 52% in 2016, well below the Civil Service average, to 67% in October 2018 (following the peer review) above the benchmark of “high performing” Civil Service organisations.
40.The PHSO’s leadership, and wider staff team, are to be congratulated on the evident turn around in the internal health of the organisation in such a short period. We attach great importance to the significant improvement in engagement index derived from the annual staff survey. This was however a recovery from a low base. That it was able to deteriorate to such a state indicates the ongoing need to reform its outdated governance and accountability arrangements to prevent such a failure in the future. This reinforces the need for legislation to be introduced as a matter of urgency.
41.We therefore reiterate our predecessor committee’s recommendations from 2014 on the need for fundamental reform of the PHSO’s governance. This will require legislation. The Government and Parliament must ensure that the Draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill is scrutinised by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament as soon as possible. It is disappointing that the draft Bill has been waiting for pre-legislative scrutiny since it was published in December 2016. The Bill must then be included in the Government’s legislative programme at the earliest opportunity, or it will continue to be much harder than necessary for PHSO to continue and to sustain its recovery.
45 Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman ()
49 Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman ()
57 Tyndall et al “Value for Money Study” para 5.7
58 Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman “”, accessed 14/02/2019
61 PACAC “PHSO Annual Scrutiny 2016–17” para 43
62 Tyndall et al “Value for Money Study” para 9.2
65 Nicholas Wheatley ()
66 Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman “” & PACAC “PHSO Annual Scrutiny 2016–17” para 44
68 PACAC “PHSO Annual Scrutiny 2016–17” para 47
69 Ibid para 51–52
70 For example, A2 () Chris Groves () Dr Kenneth Nicholson () Mrs Vanessa Wood () & Nicholas Wheatley ()
73 Tyndall et al “Value for Money Study” para 5.3
74 PACAC “PHSO Annual Scrutiny 2016–17” para 9
76 Tyndall et al “Value for Money Study” para 5.3
77 Ibid para 5.4
78 Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman ()
Published: 25 March 2019