We had our first launch of the Informal Resolution report last night at the Nuffield Foundation’s offices in London. It was a great turn-out, including representatives from Belfast, Dublin and Cardiff and a mix of academic researchers, policy makers and ombudsfolk. It wasn’t surprising that such an audience generated a lively discussion about the problems of terminology, what’s the right balance between informality and consistency, and whether informal resolution poses risks to justice and to the ombudsman ‘brand’.
We set out our findings in terms of what informal processes are called by the ombuds and complaint handlers who use them, how frequently they are used, what criteria are used to assess suitability, whether informally resolved complaints are published, and what training case handlers have in informal resolution.
A high point was a comment by one participant whose scheme is one of the 12 we had identified as not using informal resolution. He stood up and said, “I lied to the researchers! Now that I know what we’re talking about, I realise I do that…I just never called it that.”
He hadn’t lied to us, of course – but his comment illustrates the difficulties we faced with this project in trying to clarify what it is that ombuds and complaint handlers actually do when they are resolving complaints without investigation. He also highlighted what he thinks are the risks of formalising approaches whose success to some extent relies on their informality.
It’s clear that we have only managed to scratch the surface and produce a snapshot ‘map’ of a moment in time in ombudsmanry. If our report provokes further discussion, consideration and research on the actual work of ombuds, it will have been a success.
Now looking forward to our launch next week in Edinburgh!
We’re very pleased to have reached two milestones in our relatively small-scale mapping study: we presented initial findings at a conference on ADR and ombudsmen at Wolfson College, Oxford, in April, and we’ve just received our final responses to our survey. Only 3 of the 53 ombudsmen and other complaint handlers we contacted have not participated, a response rate of 94% that is hugely helpful to us but also demonstrates the commitment and generosity of those involved in the complaint-handling world in the UK.
The next stage is to analyse our responses and begin drafting our report, which we aim to launch in early October at the Nuffield Foundation in London. We are carrying out a number of follow-up interviews to explore some of the discrepancies and differences that are appearing in practice and to test how we might approach the definitions of informal resolution approaches.
At the Oxford conference we presented some early findings. We noted that terminology has featured as a key obstacle to understanding what approaches our respondents are using and how they relate to those used by others. For example, one person’s ‘mediation’ is another person’s ‘early neutral evaluation’, and ‘informal’ is used to describe all the work of some ombudsmen when compared with court or tribunal procedures. We’re also finding that it is a rare ombudsman who has written criteria for when to use settlement approaches and when to investigate and determine a complaint.
It’s too early to provide any conclusions or recommendations yet, and we’re mindful of the challenges that ombuds are currently facing – with Parliamentary Select Committee inquiries and the EU ADR Directive posing questions about the future role and shape of the ombudsman landscape. But that also means it’s an interesting time to take a close look at the actual practice of ombudsmanry, to lift up the rock and see what lurks beneath.