By Winnie Agbonlahor

19 Nov 2014

The women leading the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman and the Local Government Ombudsman are calling for their organisations to be merged and strengthened, making life easier for service users. Winnie Agbonlahor meets them

In October 1961 Sir John Whyatt, the former attorney general of Kenya and chief justice of Singapore, produced a report for the government recommending the creation of a UK parliamentary ombudsman. This new ombudsman “machinery”, he wrote, should be “the independent upholder of the highest standards of efficient and fair administration” and would represent an “important step forward in restoring the balance between the individual and the state.” It took another six years for the government to react – but the ombudsman post was eventually established under the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967. 

A further 47 years down the line, the post’s successor – the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) – still operates as an organisation dedicated to putting things right for citizens who feel unfairly treated by a government body. Meanwhile, for complaints against local government bodies, people can go to the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) – created under legislation passed in 1974. 

The two bodies haven’t stood still over the years: the PHSO now covers health services, for example, whilst the LGO had its jurisdiction extended to include private social care providers. But PHSO Julie Mellor (pictured above right) and LGO Jane Martin (pictured above left) have now joined forces to argue for further substantial change, adapting their organisations to these fast-changing times. 

“It’s time to have a look and see whether all that is fit for purpose; because if you think about the way things have changed in that time – particularly the way in which local government services are provided – it’s just a completely different ball game now,” says LGO Martin. Delivery structures have changed dramatically, but the legislation governing the two organisations remains largely unchanged – so citizens are left with a complicated complaints system, the two explain. Citizens, PHSO Mellor says, “are not bothering [to complain] because it’s too complicated.”

To make it easier for people to complain, the pair are calling for the creation of a single ‘Public Services Ombudsman’ which would absorb both their responsibilities. The PHSO did research which showed that 18% of those using public services “had something happen to them that they wanted to complain about”; but of these, 40% didn’t do so because they “thought it would be a long and bureaucratic process, didn’t know where to go, or thought they wouldn’t be taken seriously,” Mellor says. Martin agrees: the complaints system for central and local government and health services is, she says, “a maze”.

Merging these two last-resort complaint-handling bodies doesn’t sound like a huge simplification. But Mellor says: “We’re talking beyond the two organisations. For example, in addition to ourselves there is a housing ombudsman, and there are parts of education where people who make complaints don’t have access to an ombudsman service, so it’s a bigger change than just a merger of our two organisations.” 

The ombudsman only intervenes when the direct complaints process has been exhausted. So whether there’s one ombudsman or two, service users will still have to identify and complain to responsible organisations first. Local authorities are commissioning more and more of their services from a range of different organisations, making it harder for service users to trace a line of responsibility back to the relevant public body – so I ask again: would a single ombudsman body really offer much in the way of simplification? “We’re pretty damn sure we can simplify,” Martin says with confidence. She has been able to do joint investigations with Mellor’s team on matters involving health and social care, but “we want to make that as seamless as possible – we want to make it work even more effectively for the public.” 

There’s an elephant in this room: who would do it? Would one of the two lose her job? “Let’s answer that carefully,” Martin says. “I’m looking to legacy. I want to hand over to something which will take forward the vision that we have for public service complaints.” With Martin five years but Mellor just two years into their seven-year terms, Martin is confident that “it won’t be me – it might be Julie.” But the PHSO responds: “We’re saying the governance should change, and probably neither of us will be here by the time it happens.”

Mellor would also like to cut MPs out of the process: under the current legislation they act as middlemen, with the ombudsman only able to investigate if an MP refers one of their constituents to the service in writing. The PHSO wants people to be able to come straight to her, and for her organisation to have the power to instigate investigations at its own initiative. “Jane currently has the tool to widen an investigation – we don’t for our remit,” she says. “It would be good for this one public ombudsman service to have the ability to extend [the remit of investigations, and to launch them on its own initiative.”

The power to investigate at the ombudsman’s initiative, Mellor adds, “could be used [instead] every time government sets up expensive independent inquiries. Governments around the world are realising that they could use ombudsman services to do those investigations, because we’re already set up by statute to be independent. You can’t question that independence.” Rather topically, Mellor explains that “whether it’s sex abuse or whatever the issue – we could be the place that deals with that.”

Her reference to sex abuse as the subject of an inquiry becomes more topical when, after our interview, Fiona Woolf steps down as chair of the Home Office-led investigation into historic sex abuse. Approached for a comment, Mellor’s office – unsurprisingly – plays it safe: a spokesman tells CSW that “the comment was simply that there may be scope for governments across the globe to consider referring complaints about significant service failure to independent ombudsman services, rather than setting up separate inquiries each time. It will always be up to any government to choose the route they think is most appropriate for the public concern being expressed.”  

How difficult is it to achieve change after the ombudsman concludes its investigation and makes recommendations? There’s usually resistance when the ombudsman service recommends large compensation payments, Mellor explains. But Martin emphasises: “It’s not all about getting money; it’s about getting things done.”

Getting things done after upheld complaints involves improving government’s services and processes, thereby reducing the number of service failures in future. How good are departments at learning from their mistakes and eliminating the problems which have led to complaints? “I don’t think you can generalise,” Mellor says cautiously. However, she adds that she is “particularly worried about the court service and visas and immigration, from which we receive the largest number of worrying complaints.” Overall, though, “the worlds of DWP or HMRC will be very different to that of DECC or DfId.”

Since taking the job, Mellors has initiated some big internal reforms in her own organisation. These have included raising productivity: PHSO staff investigated six times as many complaints last year as they did in 2012. She’s also brought more marketing skills into the organisation to raise awareness of the service among under-represented complainant groups, such as people with learning disabilities and Muslim women. But PHSO staff engagement levels recorded in the Civil Service People Survey fell from 73% in 2011 to 47% in 2013, suggesting that people are not on board with the changes. “I think staff support the direction, but there were challenges in re-structuring and trying to do a lot more cases,” Mellor responds. “I take my hat off to staff that they succeeded in making those changes, but there was uncertainty and change for them and we want to do better in the way we engage people in future.”

Being at the receiving end of last-resort complaints against public bodies must create as much frustration as job satisfaction. But both women deny that it’s ever a depressing role. Mellor says she’s enthusiastic about reforming the organisation, and “passionate about making things better for the citizen”. And Martin comments that while the job is “sometimes a bit challenging, it’s really fulfilling because we are putting things right for people.” 

The ombudsmen may have to handle a stream of upset and angry people badly let down by public services – but in many cases, they can help people to resolve their problems. And that is quite a special space to work in. “Frankly,” concludes Martin, “it’s a privilege to be able to do it.”

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