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?.