Rob Behrens understands the importance of learning from other people’s difficult experiences. The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman tells Richard Johnstone how his international work has shaped his approach, and how he hasn’t given up on a plan to merge with other ombudsmen
Rob Behrens photographed by Jon Enoch
Working in the civil service can bring unusual challenges, but few have an experience as unique as former Cabinet Office official – and current Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman – Rob Behrens in helping to build a new national government after decades of discrimination and conflict.
This was the task facing South Africa as the apartheid system was dismantled ahead of the nation’s first democratic election in 1994 – a story in which the Cabinet Office played a little-known role.
Under an agreement between Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, which had fought apartheid, and the government of John Major, senior ANC figures were brought to the UK for advice on creating public institutions.
Behrens played a key role in this extraordinary time as head of the Civil Service College’s Southern African Development Unit from 1992 to 1997.
“One of my responsibilities was to work with the liberation movements, particularly the ANC, to develop senior cadres to learn about the principles of public service,” he says. “They had no experience of that because they were an underground organisation who had been banned.
“We brought more than 200 people over to the UK. They had secondments at Whitehall, and to Europe and Africa as well, to look at those issues. That was a very important and interesting experience.”
A key element was working with Cyril Ramaphosa, the head of the constitutional assembly and the secretary general of the ANC, on developing the new governing structure for the country.
“We learnt a lot, as British civil servants, through how they did it,” Behrens recalls. “I worked, for example, in the constitutional assembly in Cape Town where they developed the new constitution, and I learnt a huge amount about how to consult people, genuinely consult with people, about policy decisions. They didn’t mess about, it was real – it went into the townships and was humbling to witness. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they definitely did it effectively, so there was learning on both sides.”
Following this landmark work, Behrens was promoted to the Senior Civil Service in 1997 and led the International Consultancy Group of the Civil Service College and then the International Public Service Group in the Cabinet Office. In this role, he provided technical assistance in public management to countries in Eastern Europe and the former Yugoslavia, as well as putting in place a scheme to enable UK civil servants to learn from the experiences of other countries.
“We have to use publicity to make sure that lessons are taken. If you don’t do that, you’re not an ombudsman”
From the civil service, Behrens moved to a number of watchdog roles, first at the Committee on Standards in Public Life, then the Bar Standards Board and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education in England and Wales before starting as PHSO in April this year.
The memories of that “life-defining experience” in South Africa continue to influence him. “It informs what we’re trying to do,” he tells CSW of his plan for the PHSO, encapsulated in a new three-year strategy.
The organisation acts as the final arbiter in disputes between citizens and both government departments and the National Health Service. The new corporate plan introduces a streamlined operating model and improved corporate training for staff to both quicken the average 234 days it takes to adjudicate a complaint and deal with a 24% funding cut.
The strategy will be implemented from next April after the PHSO moves its main office to Manchester this month (where the Manchester City supporting Behrens will feel at home). At the same time, the organisation will be laying the groundwork for a possible merger with the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.
The plan will also help the watchdog recover from what Behrens called a “loss of confidence” following the controversial resignation of his predecessor.
Dame Julie Mellor resigned over the way she handled correspondence about former PHSO managing director Mick Martin. He had resigned in April 2016, after it emerged that an employment tribunal had ruled he helped to cover up sexual harassment in his previous job at the Derbyshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, and Mellor left her post after accepting “the mistakes I made” in dealing with the issue.
Behrens told CSW the organisation had been through a “traumatic two years”, but that the strength of PHSO’s “superb” staff had shone through.
“It was quite clear talking to people throughout the organisation and outside in preparation for coming that there had to be reassurance and a plan for moving forward,” he says of the episode. “The reassurance is about having a leadership that sets out very clearly what the priorities of the organisation are, so we have to be first and foremost an ombudsman service that resolves complaints for groups and individuals.
“Building on that, we have to be an organisation that disseminates the learning from those cases to improve not only complaints handling but public policy. I think a bit of that had been lost sight of, and I want to return to that, which is what the strategic plan is about.”
Informed by his international experience, Behrens insists “there is no magic wand” to build trust.
“First of all you need to have coherent plan that you can explain easily to people about what you’re doing,” he says. “Secondly you have to be competent at what you do – we have to demonstrate we can hold bodies to account, that we can do it relatively quickly, and we can get compliance for our recommendations. Some of that is already there, and some of that needs to be built on.”
An estimated 120,000 people come to the PHSO each year with an enquiry. Currently it can only investigate complaints if people are dissatisfied at the end of the complaint-handling process with departments, although it is seeking its own investigation powers. In 2016-17 the PHSO adjudicated in 4,239 complaints, 88% of which were about the NHS.
Behrens wants to visit more departments and hospitals to “demystify what we do”, and although he notes that the complaint-handling regimes are different – in particular, the health service is often dealing with life-threatening issues – he believes there are principles that can be shared across boundaries.
“Every ombudsman job I have had, the bodies in its jurisdiction have always said ‘our job is so different you can’t compare us to anyone else’, and I think that’s true in the civil service and in the health service,” he notes.
“There are generic principles but there are also exceptional circumstances that need to be taken into account. While we have a ‘general principle’ approach to complaints handling, with a small number of key steps, these steps have to be focused through the lens of the particular issues.”
Behrens says that in his time at the PHSO so far he has seen “no lack of willingness between permanent secretaries, ministers and the wider civil service to understand that complaints handling has to be better and more systemic”.
“There are some well-established complaints handling regimes in departments, which are more formalised and have more resources dedicated to them than occurs in trusts in the health service,” he says.
So how does he think that the PHSO is viewed in government? “There’s survey evidence from work that was commissioned last year that the reputation of PHSO across government is not particularly high,” he says. “That is something for us to work on – we have to get out more, we have to talk to departments more, we have to be better at communicating, and we have to be quicker.
“A constant complaint, and it is legitimate, is that we’re not quick enough,” he continues. But despite this there is “goodwill towards us because people recognise that the ombudsman is the last in the line for complaints, and departments understand they rely on the ombudsman for relieving them of issues they can’t deal with”.
Given that the role is the last arbiter of complaints, how close can the relationship with departments be? “We are not a civil service body,” Behrens replies. “I am a Crown appointment, we have to make fearless recommendations and we have to make sure that – even though we can’t force departments to implement them – they do take our recommendations seriously. And we have to use publicity to make sure that lessons are taken. If you don’t do that, you’re not an ombudsman.”
However, Behrens says he doesn’t want to be “the ombudsman for bad news”.
“I talked to a lot of people when I came on board and one of the things they said to me was to not just focus on the poor practice,” he says. “Call out the poor practice, yes, but complement people when they get it right, because there is a morale issue here.
“We want to work to promote good practice so that it is more widespread than it currently is.”
“The ANC didn’t mess about with their consultation, it went into the townships and was humbling to witness. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they definitely did it effectively”
The PHSO highlights some areas of good practice in its annual report on complaints about UK government departments, published this month. It praises, for example, the Leasehold Advisory Service for introducing an appointment system for telephone calls with an advisor, and the Department for Work and Pensions for implementing a system to ensure complaint handlers are sufficiently distant from the initial complaint to avoid any conflicts of interest.
Another way Behrens plans to share good practice is through closer working – and calls for an eventual merger – with the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.
The Cabinet Office drafted legislation to create a single public service ombudsman – and to give it the investigation powers the PHSO is seeking – before this year’s general election, but it was not included in the Queen’s Speech and now faces a challenge for parliamentary time in the current two-year session.
Despite this, the two watchdogs have developed a plan to work more closely together within the existing legislative structures, and Behrens says that neither he, his LGO counterpart Michael King nor the Cabinet Office team that developed the plan are giving up on the reform.
The challenge is now to “argue for the reforms that are necessary while understanding that the political situation at the moment doesn’t allow for that to be realised very quickly”, he says.
He and King are working on a “convergence strategy” that could be enacted without legislative change.
“I sit on his board, and he sits on my board, and we have a joint investigations team where staff from both organisations look at cases that cut across the boundaries of the organisations,” he says. There are also joint approaches to remedies and publications being developed.
“The fact that we don’t have the bill at the moment is not an impediment to change, and we will proceed, but we do need the bill and I’m going to be arguing, in a low key but hopefully forceful way, for the things that we need.”
For a man with experience of major reforms in both the UK and further afield, Behrens knows well how slow the wheels of government turn – and how people, not structures, drive change.
“You can’t move an organisation forward, however small or modest it is, without trying to take people with you,” he reflects. “There’s so much learning to be had from complainants with bad stories to tell, or other ombudsman services who are doing the same thing. You don’t need consultants when you have free advice from people.”
Behrens joined the civil service in 1988 after starting his career in social policy academia at Coventry Polytechnic (now Coventry University). His first major Whitehall role was as lead consultant on diversity for the Cabinet Office’s Civil Service College, which included launching Europe’s first positive action programmes for ethnic minority civil servants and disabled civil servants. He stayed within the Civil Service College for more than a decade, working on public sector capacity-building as part of the college’s international work. From 2001 to 2003 he was director of the Cabinet Office’s International Public Service Group, where he worked to provide public management assistance to a host of emerging democracies across Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.
He subsequently moved into the ombudsman sector, first as the secretary to the Committee on Standards in Public Life from 2003 to 2006, the Bar Standards Board (2006 - 2008), and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education in England and Wales (2008 - 2016), before taking the top role at the PHSO.