How easy is it for you to complain about a public service and to seek redress for any wrong suffered? Charles Nancarrow, from the National Audit Office, has co-authored a report looking at how the system works.
The National Audit Office has been examining the complaints and redress system in public services, and last month we published the results of our investigations.
The report found that the current system is incoherent and dissatisfying to users, and in need of reform and rationalisation.
We’d like to hear about your experiences of complaining when things go wrong, and how you would like to see the system improved.
When things go wrong with public services
Public services are vital to our welfare. When they go wrong, which happens for about one in five of us every year, the consequences can be very serious.
Problems range from relatively straightforward issues – 42% of complainants had problems with quality of service – to serious and potentially life-threatening situations.
Our study found a care home which failed to recognise the signs of stroke in an elderly relative and failed to call an ambulance, and examples of young infants being left unattended in nurseries.
So how can we prevent these failures occurring, and make sure that where users have suffered they can gain redress?
A major line of defence is complaints from the public, who observe the quality of service first hand. Complaints can be a good early warning sign of potential problems.
The public was first able to seek independent redress when a public sector ombudsman was set up in 1967, and the system has grown haphazardly since.
You can now complain to organisations, ranging from regulators, local authorities, and government departments, to consumer advocates, providers and ombudsmen.
The problems with complaining
On the face of it, the sheer number of organisations that can take complaints ought to mean that you’re well served.
However, our report found that the system is failing users. People find it hard to know where to direct their complaints and must approach a range of bodies for different issues.
As a result, it can take a very long time to get problems resolved and about a half of complainants give up.
Last year 36% of complainants about local services spent more than a year trying to resolve their problem with their local authority before taking their complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman.
Add to this the fact that you must often rely on the service provider investigating themselves, and it’s easy to see why less than a third of complainants were satisfied with the outcome of their complaint last year.
It is not for a want of trying from the authorities concerned. Many of those we visited in our study were focused on using complaints to improve services, but current set up makes it hard for them to do so.
The low level of data sharing between organisations means it is very difficult to work out where and why problems occur.
Services that people want
The Government says that it wants to improve the system substantially, and it has introduced a bill on ombudsmen reform. Our report contains further recommendations to help improve services. But reform will involve structural and cultural change across central and local government.
It is our job at the National Audit Office to hold government to account. We want to hear your experiences of complaining, in the public and private sectors. How you would like the current system improved?
Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Charles Nancarrow at the National Audit Office. All opinions expressed here are Charles’s own, not necessarily those of Which?