First ever government-wide complaints standards 'could be life changing'

"Trailblazer" departments have already adopted PHSO's standards, which aim to ensure complaints are "embraced"
The complaint standards will be adopted across government. Photo: Adobe Stock

By Tevye Markson

12 Oct 2022

Departments and public bodies have begun implementing the first ever government-wide standards for how complaints are handled.

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman worked with government departments and other public bodies to create the standards after research revealed more than two-thirds of people did not think their complaint to public services would be listened to.

Until now, there have been no common standards among departments and no clear indication of what constitutes good practice.

The public-services watchdog said the standards will aim to help public bodies provide a quicker, simpler, fairer and more thorough service “where complaints are embraced and welcomed as opportunities to learn”. 

“Mistakes happen, but how they’re handled can avoid them being repeated and make a big difference to those affected. It’s no exaggeration to say that in some circumstances this could be life changing,” PHSO ombudsman Rob Behrens said.

Behrens pointed CSW to examples including the Foreign Office not properly handling a rape allegation and a Department of Work and Pensions error that severely cut the benefits of 118,000 people with disabilities and health problems.

“All of that could have been addressed more effectively if they had adopted complaints,” he said.

Behrens has previously warned that there is a growing trend of government departments seeing complaints from service users as a nuisance.

The 'trailblazers'

The Cabinet Office, Department for Transport, HM Revenue and Customs, and the Food Standards Agency have already adopted the standards, having worked with the PHSO on developing them for two years.

These “trailblazer” organisations have “seriously taken the standards on board and are beginning to understand the benefits of using it”, Behrens said. They will continue to work with the ombudsman to improve good practice across government, he added.

The PHSO has no legislative powers to enforce complaints standards, unlike in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, although Behrens has repeatedly called for the government to give the ombudsman these powers.

But Behrens said he is confident public bodies will embrace the standards given government's key role in creating them, rather than being “imposed by the ombudsman in a patronising way”.

“There is real enthusiasm for complaints standards which aren't mandatory, but which are seen to be useful and effective in making the frontline more effective in handling complaints,” he said.

Before finalising the standards, the ombudsman held a consultation in which 82% of respondents said it was clear what they were trying to achieve and 91% supported theit aims.

No league tables

Department chiefs will need to take responsibility for creating a "genuine learning culture", Behrens said.

“There will be no league tables. The approach is: here is good practice; here are examples of it; here is some training advice to go with it’; use this, talk to your counterparts and see what happens."

The ombudsman singled out HMRC second permanent secretary Angela MacDonald – "the prime actor in this" – for her role in developing the standards.

" She understands the importance of how complaints should be handled, and she's led her colleagues across the civil service in making sure that they get what they think is necessary in working with us,” he said.

Talking in a recent PHSO podcast, MacDonald, who is also the government's complaints champion, explained why change is needed.

“When you’re serving 70 million people, it means that even if you’re fantastic 99% of the time, that 1% is an awful lot of people,” she said.

“There should be some commonality about how we put it right when things go wrong. Having had the opportunity to spend time with government departments, large and small, I’ve realised there’s massive diversity of experience and capability.

“But the mark of who we are is what we do when it goes wrong and there has to be a good-quality consistent way of doing that.”

Complaint handlers want more support

Behrens said to one of the main issues with current complaints handling has been the lack of support complaint handlers get in their roles.

“When we did the original research for this, we found lots and lots of good people handling complaints in departments,” Behrens said.

“But they said to us, they don't get sufficient training, or investment or respect in carrying out their difficult role to make them feel as if they're doing the best that they possibly could do.”

Getting more investment could be difficult, with departments under pressure to come up with efficiency savings, but Behrens said improving how complaints are handled will be "a money saver” as complaints will be resolved more quickly.

“I don't think there's any tension whatsoever between a more cost-effective civil service and having complaints standards,” he added.

Addressing bureaucracy concerns

Behrens also revealed how officials in some departments raised concern that the implementation of the standards might be “bureaucratised”, with departments asked to fill in lots of forms.

“We’ve taken that on board very seriously. We don't want to bureaucratize the process,” he said.

“What we want to do is to know that it's a useful process where we can report to our select committee and to the public that it has its benefits and give examples.”

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