Dame Julie Mellor: Why departments must take citizens' complaints seriously

Complaints are an opportunity for public services to learn and improve, says Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman Dame Julie Mellor, as the watchdog publishes fresh research on how departments respond to public concerns

Our vision is that everyone should be confident in complaining, that they find it straightforward, fair and feel listened to.

Today’s report into unresolved complaints about UK government departments and their agencies that we investigated shows that there is more they can do to provide a good complaint handling experience and service.

Our investigations have revealed that people’s lives have been put on hold because of incorrect decisions, wrong advice and delays by public services, in some cases leaving people unable to work, struggling to cope, and separated from their loved ones.

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Most people bring complaints to us because they don’t feel that the organisation complained about did enough to put things right, such as giving a proper apology, acknowledging mistakes or providing sufficient financial remedy.

In one of three cases that we upheld, people simply wanted a proper apology or action to put things right.

There is more that public services can do to communicate their complaints processes clearly, including how to escalate a complaint to us.

This, alongside more transparent decision-making, better management of complainants’ expectations and better communication of final decisions would vastly improve people’s experience of the complaint process.

We have found that departments fail to pick up on trends in their complaints and therefore often fail to identify potential problems with the service.

This year, for example, we reported on several failings by the DVLA in assessing people’s fitness to drive, leaving them unable to work and cutting them off from their friends and families. If these complaints had been handled better by the DVLA, people would have had their licences back sooner, which for many people are a lifeline.

People complain about poor public services because they don't want the same thing to happen to somebody else. And when complaints are not resolved by the organisations themselves, much-needed improvements are delayed.

Our casework highlights the profound impact public service failures can have on people.

Today’s report includes cases where a wrong decision by UK Visas and Immigration left a grandmother in her 80s stranded abroad for eight weeks. She was severely visually impaired and had a number of other health problems. Her family in the UK were extremely worried about her health and welfare, and her grandson had to go abroad to care for her.

In another case we investigated, we found it was the wrong advice by visa staff at two British embassies that left a man stranded abroad for two months, unable to return to the UK and go back to work after his holiday. Needless to say, this caused him a great deal of stress and anxiety and left him and his wife struggling financially.

In another case we investigated, a farmer received more than £19,000 in lost income after he received incorrect advice about an EU farm subsidy, from the Rural Payments Agency.

The top reasons for complaints we investigated across all departments and their agencies were about incorrect decisions and poor communication.

Complaints are an opportunity for public services to learn and improve. That’s why it’s crucial that Boards across government make sure people who complain are treated with respect and that complaints are taken seriously and are acted on.

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