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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?.

Comments
Member

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.

Member
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.

Member

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

Member
Megan dog says:
9 May 2014

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

Member
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.

Member
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.

Member

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……

Member

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.