/ Health, Money, Parenting

Have you ever complained about a government department?

Make complaints count illustration

As the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman publish new findings on government department complaints, guest author Dame Julie Mellor tells us how the laws need to change…

We all rely on the NHS and public services, whether it’s to seek medical help or get our rubbish collected every week. I do this most of the time without noticing and I suspect many others do too; that is, until something goes wrong.

When public services fail, it can have serious effects on us as individuals. We know from our research that when people complain, they just want three simple things: an explanation of what went wrong, an apology and for the mistake not to be repeated.

Acting on poor service

We are the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman and we are the final step for people who want to complain about being treated unfairly or receiving poor service from UK government departments and agencies of the NHS in England. Last year alone we investigated 2,199 cases from people who complained to us.

If you have a complaint to make the first thing to do is to talk to the organisation you have a problem with and to give them time to sort it out. Our leaflet has some useful advice on how to do this. If you’re not satisfied with their response, don’t give up.

We know from our research that 39% of people who want to complain about a public service do not make a complaint. But despite their reluctance, it is worth persevering. If you’re not happy with the response you get, bring it to us. In many of our cases we can achieve an explanation of what went wrong, an apology for the complainant, other actions to put things right and recommendations to the organisation to ensure lessons are learnt and mistakes aren’t repeated.

Reluctant to complain

Our research showed that of the people who don’t complain, two thirds don’t do so because they don’t believe their complaint will lead to any change.

We have seen from the cases we investigate that complaints can also be met with defensiveness from the organisation being complained about. This defensiveness when added to the reluctance of people to complain creates a toxic cocktail that means problems either go unheard or unresolved.

Government departments and agencies need to be more open and value complaints as a way to learn and improve. They need to rebuild the trust that people have in public services so they aren’t reluctant to complain. This requires leadership welcoming feedback from concerns and complaints into their department’s culture, so that people feel comfortable talking to them and trust them to act on feedback.

To help this happen, we have today revealed the number and types of complaints that we have received about government departments and agencies, so that leaders in these organisations can learn where and how they could improve complaints handling. We know Which? is campaigning for changes to the way public services listen to complaints and this is also an important step.

In addition, we will be doing more research on just how much leaders in public services are acting on complaints, and we will feed that in to a review that the Cabinet Office is doing on complaint handling in Government.

Modernising complaint laws

We are also calling for changes in our legislation to allow us to modernise and meet the expectations of today’s consumer. We want people to be able to bring their complaints about government services directly to us. At the moment the law says that for us to take on a complaint about a government department or agency, the complaint must be referred to us by an MP. We also want to be able to investigate areas of concern without having to receive a complaint, so that we can use our powers to help the most vulnerable.

Together with the Local Government Ombudsman, which investigates complaints about local authorities, we want to make it easier for consumers to bring their complaints to us. That’s why we are calling for significant change in the way complaints are handled across public services to make it easier for people to know where to turn to when things go wrong. We are delighted that Which? are working with us to help achieve our vision of Public Ombudsman Services that are more accessible for the public, more useful for Parliament and better value for money.

What do you think could help simplify and strengthen our complaints system? Tell us your views and experience so we can take these on board during our discussions with the Cabinet Office review team.

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Dame Julie Mellor, Parliamentary Commissioner for Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman – all opinions expressed here are Julie’s own, not necessarily those of Which?.


You could start by setting up a confidential system to listen to, and act on, the complaints from within the NHS, CQC, local authority and government departments – the so-called whistleblowers. Many see serious deficiencies in their organisation – both functional and managerial – that then become battles with legal involvment and cover-up, culminating in pay-offs to blackmail the “offender” into keeping quiet and matbe an end to their careers. That does no good – the public lose trust, the organisation doesn’t improve, the expense is unjustified. There are examples too numerous to list. Private Eye usually has a number of reports if you want to become depressed.

Geoff McLaughlin says:
6 May 2014

It is generally accepted by those in the know that most Ombudsman services are more about protecting the perpetrator rather than the victim, particularly if the complaint will cause embarrasment to a number of departments, or senior management, which previously attempted to cover-up the complaint. Most MP’s know that the Local Government Ombudsman serves only to make corrupt authorities look clean eventhough they know the authorities are rotten and that the LGO does not in fact protect the public interest as it should. I have come to realise, having lodged a number of complaints, that the only people who recommend an Ombudsman are the very people my complaint is about and who know the Ombudsman will tread softly and punish no one in real terms. I too believe Whistleblowers should be encouraged and rewarded rather than punished or sacked.

Did report a pot hole recently online. Bradford met filled it in within days.

Megan dog says:
9 May 2014

The Highways people in my area also did a splendid job. 10/10 to them.

Keith R says:
9 May 2014

Tried to complain about my local council to the LGO but the criteria was so complicated and difficult to satisfy I wonder if anyone gets to actually complain. The LGO is only interested in big complaints and not the small individual complaints. So effectively the local council fob you off knowing the LGO is never going to look at your complaint. The system needs to change and the voice of every individual should be heard and dealt with. The current system is far to complicated and difficult for the individual. It is no wonder they don’t bother making complaints.

Megan dog says:
9 May 2014

Near my home was land that was scheduled in a district council ten year plan for light commercial/office development. An application for an office plus extensive housing sailed through. A public Right of Way across the centre of the development land disappeared never to return (it is now a car park and offices). The district council entered into lengthy discussions with the developer but the discussions were never made public and all requests for information were refused. The town council fully supported the development at all stages.

Planning consent for housing on commercially zoned land, easy peasy. Ay least it is if the developer is the district councils’ outsourced housing department and the seller of the land is or has family connections on the local town council.

By the way, the Freedom of Information Act governs the data that should be made available to the public but outsourced housing departments, ie. housing charities, are not included. My local district council seemed to think they were excluded too. Complaints were met with “we have done everything in a right and roper manner”.

Read Private Eye for an abundance of far worse cases.

I work for a voluntary organisation to do with high hedges, and have had course to make complaints to local councils about their tardiness and malfeasance – it usually takes months and the answer, if not satisfactory, leads to the Ombudsman. I have to say that every time I have used the Ombudsman and it now numbers possibly five or six times, (add 50 or so to that for Council complaints) it has been a complete waste of my time and their space. They do nothing except back up the councils or state they cannot get involved when, for me, they have a clear duty to do so.

I also find the complaints system laughable too. Any system that starts with a 28 working day allowance for each stage of its complaints system and then says that if it is too complicated they may take longer is really a system with a built in fault that usually results in people losing the will to live = then factor in the six months the Ombudsman takes to deal with the same complaint and you can see why I just yawn now when Governments talk about improving the system. You have to want to do it first and there is no evidence of this from any government department……

Dot, I agree about the time local authorities, government departments and quangos say they may take to answer an email. There is no excuse for taking 14 days, let alone 28 days. There should be a mandatory maximum of 5 working days for an initial, and helpful, response. Then we might believe they take complaints seriously, rather than hoping we will go away. Perhaps Julie Mellor would like to comment on whether this problem is one she will address.

Raffaele says:
9 May 2014

I am a disable man and i have been having problems since last year or more about anti social
behaviour in our estate.I have contacted the Council and the Police but the situation is almost the same.The Police says to contact the Council,the Council does not help you in any way and when i complain about their services they simply do not take any action.
I have complained more than once and i have NEVER had any help.Because of my disability the
useless answers they give me rather than improve, my health and quality of life is worsening.
I contacted the Local Ombudsman as well and i should have continue to do something i cannot
do because i am unwell most of the time.
So i told you a little bit of my story to confirm that complaining about a public service is too complicate and difficult especially for people like me who are disable and do not know were to turn
for real help.
I lost trust in the complain services because i have realized that all that is made up just for protecting themself rather than the public.

Phil says:
9 May 2014

Oh, what a veritable ‘hornets nest’ this topic is!

I have to agree with many of the above comments. Government and local government complaints systems, while lauded by those officers who seem proud to promote their procedures, the harsh reality is that in practice they are close to worthless!

Unless the complainant has boundless time, energy and resourcefulness, the procedure will, almost inevitably set out to destroy them. As for whistleblowers, suicide would, tragically be far less painful and only marginally less effective!

So please, can we not just have Ombudspeople (presumably that’s the politically correct plural) with real ‘teeth’, and the will ‘to bite’, but also an INDEPENDENT and truly IMPARTIAL investigative force which would surely reduce the workload of Ombudspeople everywhere.

As taxpayers, we surely have the right to a system of ‘justice’ that can fairly work towards eradicating bad practice, so that when an individual reports that something is ‘wrong’, then they can expect fair and impartial treatment AND have the expectation that some good will come of their willingness to come forward.

I have experienced so many examples of ‘cover up’, defensiveness and denial during complaint processes that early compound the original issue.

The law needs to change to ensure that we, the public who pay the inflated salaries of civil servants, politicians and local government officers, have our legitimate concerns and questions properly answered.
My latest (of three in three years) Freedom of Information Act requests to the local county council (Nottinghamshire) took 21 working days to be answered, and then they only responded because I emailed the leader of the council personally. They are legally bound by the act to respond within 20 working days. A slight delay you may think, and my formal complaint to the Information Commissioners Office has effectively been dismissed, but you have to take into account that all the FOI requests I have made have all been delayed considerably more than the latest one. This latest one concerned road maintenance and similar request made to the city council (Nottingham a separate unitary authority) was answered in 8 days – not working days either!
Having been employed by the county council and made redundant by them without being offered any support to find another position when others were receiving such help, I know that I was an irritation they needed to dispose of because, unusually I told the truth to the members of the public I dealt with. I advised some suppliers that their contracts were due to be terminated, as this had supposed to have been notified to them about 18 months previously. How did I know, well I took the minutes at the meeting where this was confirmed that the suppliers had been notified! When I told the suppliers what was going to happen, about 8 months before the termination date, I advised them to speak to the person dealing with the contracts, who lied through her teeth and assured them that this would not happen. As the deadline for termination approached one of them got back in touch to say that I had been telling them the truth and they were now finding out for the first time, with about 6 weeks left, that the contract was to be terminated. I had been admonished by my line manager for passing the truth on at the time I did, but received no apology when it finally came out that the contracts were being terminated.
I am also concerned that all the authorities wear the same coat when it comes to the figures they declare to the likes of CQC or the government. By various methods false information is provided “because everyone does the same”, which makes the authorities look like they are doing considerably better than they actually are doing. I’ve no doubt that Health do the same sort of trick.
There also needs to be a revision about how local authorities can refuse to provide information by claiming that it will take too long or cost too much to gather the requested information. My second FOI request to the county council was about the re-employment of people who had been previously made redundant after a minimal length of time. I personally know of two instances of this happening, one example being someone who took voluntary redundancy and was then re-engaged through an agency doing exactly the job they had been paid to leave! I wanted to know how many instances of this had happened in the two years after I left and they hid behind the “it’s going to cost too much” excuse and managed to convince a tardy ICO that this was the case. Knowing their systems and processes, I know that this request could have been answered with the press of a few buttons in a computer request.
Frankly unless this legislation is revised to lean towards the wage paying public, they have got us all for mugs!

There are times when I am grateful that our public bodies are cautious and economical in responding to FOI requests. Nevertheless, they have to have good reasons for not addressing requests within the statutory timescale and if they are pleading excessive cost as an impediment this should be properly substantiated. They know, of course, that challenging their actions in the courts is prohibitively expensive and that the relevant Obudsman process is unduly protracted and unpredictable thus deterring the citizen from exercising their rights.

John, I think public bodies should be transparent about their actions as they are entrusted with spending our money. Otherwise they can so easily conceal misdemeanours and incompetence. FOI is often the only way to get to the bottom of an issue. There is a difficulty in the time it might take (and the cost involved) to produce some information but an attempt to answer the request helpfully is surely to be expected? The same should go for “commercial confidentiality” – sometimes used to prevent information being made public. Perhaps someone could tell me good instances of when it is applicable – I’m sure there are. When we tendered for local authority businesss the tender results (prices) were usually published after the contract had been awarded; this was a condition of tendering and I don’t think anyone was disadvantaged because of it – if you lost it made you think harder the next time about your pricing, or whether it was worth tendering.

I agree with you Malcolm, and I would go further: I think authorities should be obliged to publish a monthly list of the requests they have received so that the public can see what concerns are being raised. Public bodies have an escape route in the form of an exemption from dealing with frivolous, vexatious and otiose complaints [after all, some citizens have set themselves up as Public Nuisance No.1 and would like to grind their personal axes on the stone of democracy ad infinitum]. I fully support the FOI Act but one unreported consequence of its introduction is that some public authorities [at least, their officials] now assume that unless a request for information is submitted under the label of the Act they do not need to deal with it; if you do quote FOI when asking for a bit of information on something quite ordinary they turn it into an administrative steeplechase and you wished you’d never bothered.

On tendering, local authorities used to be good at reporting the outcomes in their committee minutes and they would also explain why they had awarded a contract to a tenderer other than the lowest [there could be perfectly good reasons]. Now it is all cloaked in secrecy as more and more business is done outside the formalities of committees either by a small cabinet panel of members or directly by the officers after discussion with an “executive member”. This creates an unhealthy climate and some officers are so afraid of putting a foot wrong and “embarrassing” their authority that they will not engage in ordinary dialogue or correspondence pleading a manufactured pretence of confidentiality.

Pensioner says:
10 May 2014

When I retired and started drawing my GPO/Post Office//BT pension it was linked to RPI. Then when the government changed the measure of inflation to CPI my pension was was then linked to CPI. So I complained to the Pension Ombudsman that I had undertaken this contract in 1967 and completed the required 40 years payments before retirement. So why was BT allowed to alter this contract when the government changed to CPI and why would the Ombudsman do nothing about this? Answer because it is protecting the government because the government is underwriting my Public Service Pension!

One thing . Constant cuts in Staff. No investment in IT structure and above all very bad high level management who haven’t a clue. At no point the government has helped local authorities if anything they have failed them by setting unachievable goals with lack of funding. They are now being privatised hoping things will improve, I don’t believe they will.

Phil says:
10 May 2014

Fully agree with the endless cutbacks. The Government MUST take responsibility for ALL complaints. It would appear that the present situation on complaints, whistleblowing, freedom of information requests, constant changes in legislation, etc., etc., generates a continuous cycle of falling standards when resources are stretched, staff get stressed, ill, which in too many cases results in long term, stress related illness; further compounding the shortage of resources.

The answers must come from the Government and the Cabinet Office! I’ve worked as a Consultant in the Civil Service for many years and although the criticism of payments to Consultants is understandable, my personal perspective is that it is much easier to identify problems when you are looking in, from the outside. Many staff members are very receptive to the external perspective. Often the resistance to change is found at the most senior level, where academic ability seems to be the primary route to promotion.

Unfortunately, academia and effectiveness do not, in many cases, go hand in hand! Yet these “Yes, Minister” individuals are hugely influential when it comes to forming Government policies.

Until we can effect a massive cultural shift, amongst Civil Servants and the Politicians they serve, locally and nationally, I fear that this country will be bedevilled with ‘c**k-ups’, ‘cover-ups’ and a ‘pass the buck’ mentality. The end result?

A continuing failure to deal with systemic faults.

Phil, you are right about a cultural shift needed – public servants at all levels need to remember they are serving the public – their customers – who pay their wages. I worked in private industry – we tried to avoid problems (and complaints therefore) before they happened. If there was a complaint we took it very seriously – apart from pride in the products and organisation this would jeopardise future business if not dealt with promptly and fairly. We were not overstaffed – not by a long chalk – so complaints took up valuable time; but we recognised their importance.

I have worked for the private sector for a number of years and I have been working for a local authority for 12 years so far. When I joined I thought it was a holiday camp. Lots of people walking around with bits of paper to unload to someone else. I agree changes needed to be made for efficiency, but to privatise I was against and thought just wasn’t the way to go.
Of course at the moment all the stops are being pulled out for ….. yes the local elections and the other interfering factor …. the Councillors needs. When this has finished we still have our time taken up with preparing performance indicators and freedom of information instead of getting the job done.

Alan says:
12 May 2014

A couple of years ago I sent an e-mail to my constituency MP to complain that a taxation position taken by HMRC was incomprehensible to me; I am retired and having no personal pension plan live off income from private savings and investments I made during my working days. It did take several months to receive a response, but then I received a very detailed letter in plain English signed personally by a government cabinet minister which comprehensively explained what was going on and what I should do. If you are dissatisfied with a public sector agency, get help from your MP!!

Independent Professional says:
12 May 2014

When I first used Freedom of Information I was able to inspect the files but now the Departments use Data Protection to redact most of the information which makes the Freedom Of Information useless. I have complained to the Ombudsman on other cases and this must be done through a Member of Parliament but the Ombudsman appears to ask the Department for a reply and does not inspect the files consequently I am of the opinion that this route is a waste of time. I get very frustrated by the time Civil Servants take to do cases and it appears that the Head of Departments appear to think that it is their responsibility to always support their staff instead of taking an independent view of the complaint.

Pothole Peat says:
17 May 2014

FOI, LGO, any of these so called people friendly departments, are manned by either well trained parrots or well prepared legal eagles, who like politicians, can run rings around us poor mortals. They can dismiss us by the simple phrase, ‘I do not recognise these facts or figures’, or ‘I have no recollection of this being said or promised’ . Or the final insult is to leave the subject hanging in the air until some statute of limitation has run out, and it all goes in the bin.

I really have NO faith or trust in departments of governments, councils or authorities who are supposed to represent us and work against us.

I was interested to read the NEWS IN BRIEF item “Make Treasury more like Which?”, arising from 5 mentions of Which? in a recent Parliamentary Committee discussion.

No official estimates are currently available on the impact of future infrastructure estimates investment on consumer bills. MP Margaret Hodge highlighted Which? research on the issue and “…asked the Treasury why it couldn’t have down this itself?” No response from the Treasury is recorded.

Anyone knowing anything about the Treasury’s 14 years of illegal actions, falsehoods and actions to block the proper compensation of Equitable Life policyholders will understand that the default mode for the Treasury is to do nothing that might illuminate the financial truth behind government policies.

The Treasury isn’t capable of doing what Which? does, which means that the only solution is to extend Which?’s capability to undertake responsibilities, if the government is genuine in its declared aims of honesty and reduced costs. Anyone want to hold their breath???

Vixi, if you want an informed view on government, public institutions, local authority and commercial companies activities that you might find interesting, take out a subscription to Private Eye. Sorry if the moderators don’t like a plug – I’ve no links to PE but do find its take on things that matter to us illuminating (and very worrying). Where has integrity, responsibility, honesty and lack of self interest gone? It was probably never there in the first place.

I couldn’t agree more, malcolm r, and appreciate all that Private Eye does to shine lights in dark corners. In fact, I am preparing 2 dossiers that I think will be of interest to them and I am a subscriber.

But what remains frustrating is that, for all their splendid efforts (Ian H please note), there remains the public service (an oxymoron, with the emphasis on moron, if I ever heard one) passive culture of ‘duck-and-stay-down-until-they-go-away’ when faced with justifiable complaints. The active culture is deny-lie-and-destroy.

But as they only follow the moral examples set by our politicians, there is little hope of any change in the foreseeable future, as even after the UKIP wipeout, the main parties seem to think that the only thing they need to change is the content of the hype and burbling they utter in what they see as the three key areas… hatred, hatred and hatred. They still don’t get it… THEY ARE THE PROBLEM, no matter what issues from their verbals.

This correspondence strikes many chords with me. I live in the London Borough of Enfield where an Environment Agency led and supposedly Enfield Council monitored flood alleviation project estimated to cost £15.3m, has been in implementation for more than a year with an uncertain time still to run to completion. I won’t bore you with chapter and verse about the varied ways in which the EA and its subcontractors have abused the local environment and local residents (who have their own blog to record abuses) because that really is not the point here.

There is also the factor of the studied failure of Enfield Council to ensure compliance with its own planning conditions by the EA and its subcontractor. The Council’s abrogation of its supervisory responsibilities is so complete that its involvement actually smells more like collusion than supervision. When residents complain to or question the Council on this they are either ignored or met by obfuscation and prevarication. This is also the fate of Freedom of Information requests.

This reflects on Which? because the recently re-elected Leader of Enfield Council is Doug Taylor who is employed by Which? This information is on Doug Taylor’s register of interests and has been confirmed to me by Which? I cannot believe that it is appropriate per se for senior political figures to be employed by Which? I was concerned about the potential for conflicts of interest and have already voiced these concerns to Which? The circumstances I describe here now leave me in no doubt that it is entirely inappropriate for Which? to employ a senior political figure who is evidentially not only unsupportive of the major Making Complaints Count campaign but is enthusiastically pursuing the practices that the campaign seeks to eradicate. Doug Taylor is in a position of power and authority such that the success or failure of the campaign as it relates to Enfield Council turns on his attitude. Doug Taylor has been directly involved by residents and local ward councillors in the complaints about Enfield Council’s lack of appetite for enforcing its project planning conditions and his attitude entirely mirrors that of Enfield Council as a whole i.e. complaints are either ignored or met by obfuscation and prevarication.

That is the reverse of the more likely sequence that Doug Taylor, as second term Leader of Enfield Council, has determined that Enfield Council will follow a policy of ignoring inconvenient complaints and questions, and if pressed to respond, using obfuscation and prevarication to play the issues long to infinity. This is not an uncommon political tactic to deal with any inconveniences but one which I believe Which? should have no truck with. Senior political activists have no place in Which?