What research exists on complainants’ views of ombuds, and how can we learn more?

We often hear about the ‘user journey’ and putting users at the heart of the justice system. For ombud schemes, ‘users’ are both complainants and the complained about, and generally feedback is sought from both groups. It is complainants, however, who tend to be the most vocal about their dissatisfaction with their experience of ombuds – using Twitter and other social media to voice their concerns. (Complained-about organisations, such as those subject to the Financial Ombudsman Service and Legal Ombudsman, are also vocal but tend to use other mechanisms and channels.)

But what do we really know about complainants’ views? Most ombuds carry out customer satisfaction surveys to gain insight into how people feel about the process used to handle their complaint and the outcome achieved. Most also have processes for reviewing complaints about the service provided, and a few have a mechanism to review ombud decision when these are challenged. Much of that work remains in the shadows and little is in the public domain, making it difficult to analyse how these numbers reflect the experience of complainants overall and to ascertain the extent to which service complaints and challenges to decisions actually make a difference.

What does the research tell us?

There is little research on the systemic impact of customer satisfaction and service complaints. In Benchmarking the Legal Ombudsman, the Legal Services Consumer Panel compared the Legal Ombudsman with several other UK ombuds schemes using a series of indicators grouped under four headings: caseload, timeliness, quality and cost. In its section on quality, the Panel highlighted that although some ombud schemes publish customer survey results in full, the practice of most is to include only a selection of statistics in annual reports. That benchmarking survey also suggested that a mechanism for externally reviewing service complaints can have a positive impact on improving the quality of investigations, but this was anecdotal.

A very different type of study of complainants’ experience is the 2008 research by Sharon Gilad on case handlers in the Financial Ombudsman Services. Gilad explored the issue of complainant expectations from the case-handler perspective – enquiring what complaint handlers do, what they try to achieve, and what strategies they employ. She suggests that by enhancing complainants’ trust in, and satisfaction with, unfavourable decisions, an expectations management approach may reinforce rather than reduce the inclination to complain in future.

…rather than merely “cooling out” complainants, this form of legitimization may actually enhance citizen-consumer voice… Rather than provoking them to pursue their dissatisfactions further in the public sphere, off-putting bureaucratic encounters resulted in applicants’ apathy and withdrawal.

Gilad’s analysis suggests that complaint handlers perceived communicating adverse decisions to complainants in a sensitive and persuasive manner as one of the key challenges of their role. When complaint handlers and complainants had differing assessments of complaints, the complaint handlers focused on managing expectations – specifically managing what they perceived as the public’s excessive or unrealistic expectations from financial firms and the ombudsman.

In November last year, the Patients Association published a report on complainants’ dissatisfaction with the Health Service Ombudsman. The ‘People’s’ Ombudsman: How it failed us sets out what the Association perceives as major failings in the way the ombud works. Key among its findings are criticisms of the ombud’s approach to evidence and the overall poor quality of its decision making. It argues that investigations are not diligent, robust or thorough, evidence is ignored, and mistakes are made, leading to re-investigations.

‘We offered to send them the set of medical records we had so that the Review team could compare them with their own. The Review Team said this was not necessary as they would ‘only be looking at the complaint handling’ and not at the original complaint.’

The report’s case-study evidence is powerful but is limited; it’s unclear how indicative the experiences reported on are of wider experiences or what the scale of the problem is.

How to approach research on complainants?

So how can we get a better sense of what complainants themselves think of ombuds? Getting access to individuals and to real cases is not an easy task for researchers – confidentiality, data protection, and ethical issues are all potential obstacles.

This week the UK Administrative Justice Institute published two blog posts about the issue, from different perspectives. One is from Della Reynolds, the co-ordinator of the PHSO Pressure Group, which works with complainants who are dissatisfied with the Health Service Ombudsman. The other is from an academic researcher at University of Oxford, Naomi Creutzfeldt, who has been exploring the issue of complainants’ trust in ombuds across the EU.

Reynolds lists a number of common obstacles faced by complainants:

  • delay
  • lack of communication
  • secrecy
  • manipulation of the facts
  • factual error
  • staff away on leave regularly or case passed between staff so you start again with new case worker
  • blanket statements from staff which do not address key points raised
  • acceptance of statements made by public body at face value
  • refusal to release details of clinical advisor used – report written by clinical advisor – questions asked of clinical advisor or evidence supplied to clinical advisor
  • no action taken if a service delivery complaint made
  • any complaint made about the decision will be met with suggestion to go to judicial review

She describes the feelings of helplessness and righteous anger that complainants experience when faced with a failure to obtain a remedy from the ombuds. She proposes that a case study approach would provide much-needed insight – following a number of cases from initial complaint to outcome, using questionnaires (and possibly interviews) to get a full picture of the ‘journey’ of the complainant.

‘Like a badly aggrieved child you approach your parent ombudsman with tales of woe and the evidence to prove it, only to be told that it is just your ‘perception’ of injustice.’

Creutzfeldt’s EU-wide project involves surveying complainants who used ombud schemes and has published her findings in country-specific reports. She writes that ‘Despite the significance of ombudsmen to our constitutional and civil justice landscapes, very little is known about users’ perceptions of the fairness of the procedures and practices and the significance of these perceptions for levels of trust in particular ombudsman offices.’

Her comparative study (she has published a number of country-specific reports) included work on five ombud schemes in the UK: two of its public-sector ombudsmen (Local Government Ombudsman and Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman) and three private ombudsmen covering five sectors (Legal Ombudsman, Financial Ombudsman Service and Ombudsman Services covering property, energy and telecoms). She has gathered and analysed data on complainants’ views at first contact stage and about the process and outcome, as well as overall satisfaction.

Among her findings is that, in both private-sector and public-sector ombuds, complainants’ expectations are too high from the outset.

‘I believed that they had the “teeth” to resolve what seemed to be a straightforward case of an erroneous transfer which I simply couldn’t resolve however hard I tried.’

She also found a marked difference in levels of dissatisfaction for those using public-sector ombuds: overall 57% of those in public schemes felt the procedure was ‘somewhat unfair’ or ‘very unfair’, compared to a quarter of those in private schemes.

The increased tendency of complainants to use social media as a mechanism to voice their dissatisfaction means that we know more about those who had a poor experience than those who had a positive one. This is an issue to be considered in another research project, currently being conducted by Creutzfeldt with Chris Gill of Queen Margaret University, on dissatisfied complainants who have set up online protest groups to highlight concerns about ombudsman schemes and campaign for change.

Ideas

We would be interested to hear of other research that has been or is being carried out on complainants’ experiences. Please get in touch using the Comments facility on this blog.


3 Comments on “What research exists on complainants’ views of ombuds, and how can we learn more?”

  1. EducatedJustice says:

    “Among her findings is that, in both private-sector and public-sector ombuds, complainants’ expectations are too high from the outset.” (Creutzfeldt)

    She’s kidding right! The vast majority of people are reasonable and realistic, they persist to the PHSO because they have evidence and righteous anger and determination for justice and are met with a formula of denial, delay and defending the body complained about whilst claiming impartiality. The disparate group that forms pshothefacts have all suffered this formula of behaviours from PHSO despite having very different complaints.

    Open your eyes! Look at the remits of regulatory bodies and PHSO. It’s very carefully worded so that they only have to be seen to be conducting an investigation – nothing about the quality, logic, fairness or attention to justice of that sham investigation!

    There is also misuse of the term vexatious, which in reality would only describe the tiniest percentage of people but seems to be used carte blanche to deflect the communications of valid complainants.

    Even if it were only groups like phsothefacts, Patients Association and Which? that reported on the failings of PHSO (which it isn’t) that would be that number of injustices too many.

    It’s all a paper exercise, a smoke and mirrors trick, look into the vast costs per PHSO investigation and weigh that against the statistics of their upholds. A few cherry-picked scapegoats do not an effective Ombudsman make.

    • The data which is released from the Ombudsman tells its own story. PHSO will only investigate if there is some evidence of maladministration. Yet 65% of cases investigated had no uphold in 2014/15. For two thirds of people, complaining didn’t make a difference and they expected that it would. In the Netherlands they have ‘presumption of honesty’. It is for the body complained about to prove that they acted appropriately. The organisation have all the evidence, the audit trail and policy rules, the complainant has to ask for all of these through repeated FOI/DPA requests and when evidence is withheld no sanctions are applied. People expect justice and a fair, evidence based decision. Those expectations should not be considered ‘too high’.

  2. “But what do we really know about complainants’ views? Most ombuds carry out customer satisfaction surveys to gain insight into how people feel about the process used to handle their complaint and the outcome achieved. Most also have processes for reviewing complaints about the service provided, and a few have a mechanism to review ombud decision when these are challenged. Much of that work remains in the shadows and little is in the public domain, making it difficult to analyse how these numbers reflect the experience of complainants overall and to ascertain the extent to which service complaints and challenges to decisions actually make a difference.”

    You are right to say that these internal checks remain in the shadows. We know only the data which is released by the Ombudsman and often this in incomplete. At PHSO the customer survey is handled by IFF. They contact complainants by telephone usually and ask a series of questions mainly relating to the process, not the outcome or quality of investigation. There is no free access to the customer survey and only a selection of people will be contacted once PHSO pass on their data to IFF. This provides an automatic filter which jeopardises the impartiality of the findings.

    The ‘whatdotheyknow’ site provides data released by PHSO in response to FOI requests. In this request it can be seen that PHSO have 4 external reviewers who look into complaints regarding decision or service delivery. These external reviewers did not uphold any complaints made about review staff for the year 2014/15. Four complaints about review staff were upheld by internal review staff in that year. https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/internal_and_external_case_revie#incoming-726389

    It might be thought that all complaints regarding review staff should be handled externally to avoid a conflict of interests, but apparently not. To assess whether the Ombudsman’s internal mechanism for investigating complaints about itself is efficient it would be necessary to know the total number of complaints made for 2014/15. This information has not been released. However, in this request we can see on Annex A that on a single day, 19th June 2015, there were 596 open complaints regarding PHSO. https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/duration_of_open_complaints

    On that basis, 4 upheld complaints would give under a 1% uphold rate. This is hardly likely to ‘make a difference’.


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