‘Learn to love complaints’, watchdog tells departments

Ombudsman’s new standards target culture change in problem-handling as research shows public lacks confidence in current system
Rob Behrens. Photo: Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

By Jim Dunton

22 Mar 2022

Proposed standards for the way government departments handle complaints have been published as part of a drive to improve services and boost public confidence in problems being resolved quickly and easily.

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman said its planned new regime aimed to drive a culture change that would see government bodies “welcoming complaints in a positive way” and recognising them as valuable insight for the organisation.

The watchdog said the new standards, which are detailed in a 16-page document that is out to consultation until the end of May, seek to encourage the provision of “fair and accountable” responses that provide “open and honest answers” to the public as soon as possible.

It added that the new regime wants to promote a “learning culture” among departments and arm’s-length-bodies “by supporting organisations to see complaints as opportunities to improve services” in a way that is aligned with the government’s Modern Civil Service ambitions.

Research commissioned by the ombudsman found that more than two-thirds of people did not think organisations would listen to a complaint about public services, and that fewer than 20% thought it would make a difference.

The ombudsman said one-third of respondents feared that making a complaint to a government organisation may affect how they were treated by that organisation in the future.

Ombudsman Rob Behrens said the results painted a “stark picture” of the need for change and that the new standards had been developed in collaboration with departmental staff – including some from the Cabinet Office and the Department for Work and Pensions, as well as advocacy groups.

“Central government organisations regularly provide high quality, essential public services. But when things go wrong, people must feel empowered to speak up, knowing their complaint will be treated seriously and acted on,” he said.

“Good complaint handling can mean the difference between better services and mistakes being needlessly repeated. As I have seen time and again, learning lessons from complaints can prevent serious harm and even lives being lost.

“This is why organisations must embed a learning and improvement culture that places complaints at the heart of service improvements. The standards will support this approach.”

The draft central Government Complaint Standards follow the production of NHS Standards, which are being rolled out across the health service.

The ombudsman said those standards had been welcomed by the health sector as much-needed guidelines to provide a “unified approach” that would benefit complaint staff and complainants alike.

The draft standards document does not stipulate timeframes for delivering responses. Its text instead unpacks expected behaviours of senior leaders and their staff – and underscores a need for cross-departmental collaboration, as well as a need to actively encourage service-user feedback.

“The standards will guide organisations of all sizes so they can put in place the right structures, reports and systems to capture and examine learning,” it says.

“This will help them gain true insight into their service users’ experience.”

The document also acknowledges the work many government organisations have already put in place to strengthen their complaints processes.

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