By Dr Nick O’Brien In December 2016, the Cabinet Office published the draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill, setting out its proposals for bringing together the responsibilities of the current Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman and the Local Government Ombudsman to create a new organisation with strengthened governance and accountability for complaints about public services in England. This review explores what research has been […]
The full research review is available to download at the link above and for viewing below.
Nick O’Brien is Honorary Research Fellow, Liverpool University, and the co-author, with Mary Seneviratne, of Ombudsmen at the Crossroads (Palgrave McMillan, 2017).
This research review, by Dr Nick O’Brien, was commissioned by the UK Administrative Justice Institute and published in January 2018 to inform debate about reform of public-sector ombuds in the UK. Below is a brief overview of the context, including developments in relation to draft legislation.
Consolidation of the public service ombudsman landscape in England has been a long time in the making, with the Collcutt Report calling for reform in 2000. However, on 5 December 2016, the Cabinet Office finally published the draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill, setting out its proposals for bringing together the responsibilities of the current Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) and the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) to create a new organisation with strengthened governance and accountability for complaints about public services in England and the UK reserved to Westminster.
The Bill has had a long gestation. In 2011 the Law Commission issued a report making a number of recommendations for reform in the landscape of the public services ombudsman. In 2014 the Public Administration Select Committee published their report Time for a People’s Ombudsman. Robert Gordon QC subsequently carried out a review, followed by a public consultation in spring of 2015, the government’s response one year ago, and then the draft Bill in December 2016. The Bill did not appear in the May 2017 Queen’s Speech, however, suggesting that there will be a delay in implementing any reforms to the landscape.
In the meantime ombudsman reform has been taken forward by the devolved administrations, with the new powers and approaches taken by the public services ombudsman in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, providing evidence on best practice in the 21st century.
The pause in taking forward the draft Bill provides an opportunity for researchers, legal practitioners, policy makers, parliamentarians, ombudsman, and others to exchange views on the strengths and weaknesses of the current proposals in the Bill, what aspects of change are most pressing and how change might be achieved without legislation.
Further information and background reading
- The House of Commons Library issued a research briefing paper on the draft PSO Bill in January 2017. This sets out the main provisions proposed in the Bill and notes shortcomings identified by individuals and organisations.
- During January and February 2017, UKAJI published a series of blog posts on the draft Bill, from a range of contributors and perspectives. The initial post, by Richard Kirkham and Brian Thompson, asked whether the changes in the draft legislation constitute significant reform. In the second post of the series, Gavin McBurnie compared the recommendations for reform made by the UK Parliament and the PHSO with the proposals in the draft Bill. In the third post of the series, Della Reynolds of phsothefacts explored the draft Bill from a user’s perspective and expressed disappointment at the missed opportunity to bring in real and substantive change for users. In the fourth and final post in the series, Nick O’Brien explored whether the draft Bill’s focus on a consumerist model suggests that, in England, the ‘ombudsman enterprise’ has run out of steam.
- On 6 March 2017, the Communities and Local Government Select Committee held a one-off evidence session on the draft PSO Bill with Mick King, Local Government Ombudsman, and Denise Fowler, former Housing Ombudsman.
- In July 2017, the PHSO and LGO issued a joint response to the draft Bill. In this they highlighted areas where they believe the reforms could go further and the new Public Services Ombudsman’s role could be strengthened.
- In October 2017, UKAJI and the University of Glasgow published research on the Complaints Standards Authority role of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, which involves designing model complaint handling procedures (model CHPs), monitoring the operation of those procedures (including setting data reporting requirements), and supporting the development of good practice in complaint handling.
- In January 2018, UKAJI published the review undertaken by Nick O’Brien on what research has been carried out on public sector ombudsman in the UK to identify what we know and don’t know.
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:
- lack of communication
- 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.
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.