Making complaints count – how the ombudsman keeping an eye on public services is changing

When members of the public want to complain about government bodies, it falls to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman to investigate. Sarah Aston speaks to the watchdog's newly-appointed non-executive directors Julia Tabreham and Ruth Sawtell about efforts to simplify the system, and change the perception that complaining doesn't make a difference

By Sarah Aston

15 Sep 2015

Earlier this year the government announced plans to merge the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO), and possibly the Housing Ombudsman, to create a single public service watchdog. How do you think this will improve services?

Julia Tabreham: The changes will make it simpler for the public in England to access an ombudsman service without having to worry who funds or runs any public service in England. This will make it more straightforward for people to get redress when things go wrong.

Ruth Sawtell: Our own research shows that only one in three people complain when they are unhappy with a public service because they have little confidence in the system of complaints. Also, people currently have to go through an MP if they have a complaint about a central government department or agency. In the 21st century, the public wants direct access to an ombudsman service. We hope that with the new service people can choose whether or not to ask for their MPs’ help or complain to the ombudsman directly.

Related articles

Interview: Julie Mellor and Jane Martin
PASC inquiry aims for solutions to clinical failures in NHS
PASC calls for dedicated minister & single portal for complaints


When can the public expect to be able to use the new merged ombudsman?  

RS: We have already set up a joint PHSO-LGO team to help us better investigate complaints that cut across health – which is in our jurisdiction – and social care, where the LGO has responsibility.

One recent example where our working together really made a difference was the case of a vulnerable woman who had had her leg amputated and who was left without the appropriate level of care because of a dispute over responsibilities between a mental health trust and a city council. Our joint investigation resulted in the woman being awarded £27,000 in compensation.

In an era of government cuts and austerity measures, public sector organisations and departments now face the difficult task of reducing spending. How will the new merged Ombudsman meet help meet spending targets? 

JT: A key reason for change is to provide better value for money and one of the main ways we expect to achieve this is by removing duplication of functions between different ombudsman services, giving increased flexibility to meet shifting demand.

In our work to align our back office processes with the LGO, we are moving onto the same finance system. The new system fulfils many of the recommendations of the National Audit Office for best practice and has been designed to introduce a standardised rigour into the procurement process.

RS: We have also been investing in technology to improve access to our service and to drive efficiencies in other areas. This has included developing our online complaints form, to make it easier for people to bring complaints about the NHS in England to us, and work to introduce a new case management system.

Last year the Patients' Association reported on cases where families felt they had been let down by the PHSO, and a Public Administration Select Committee report raised questions about the Ombudsman’s capacity to investigate complaints about clinical matters. Has the Ombudsman taken steps to address these concerns?

RS: Over the last year we have spent considerable time asking people about their experiences and expectations of our service. This has helped us identify what we need to do differently and, crucially, do consistently to give people confidence in the quality of our decisions, particularly where we do not uphold their complaint. 

Where we have got things wrong we will be open and honest about this and work with the complainant to put things right as well as use this feedback to improve our service.

In 2014/15 21% of the PHSO investigations were about central government departments and agencies? What, if any, were the recurring themes? How can Whitehall improve its record?

RS: Most of the complaints we see about Whitehall departments relate to the big service delivery departments, such as DWP, the Home Office, HMRC, and also the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for the administration of the court system. These are the departments that have most contact and interaction with members of the public 

The types of services each offers are very different, so it is difficult to compare them, but one consistent complaint across all departments is public dissatisfaction with complaint handling and a general feeling that complaining doesn’t make a difference. According to our research, almost two in three people who are unhappy with a public service don’t actually make a complaint and over a third of those don’t do so because they believe it won’t make a difference.

When people do complain they often come to us because they were not happy with how the government department or NHS organisation dealt with the complaint itself. Sometimes they feel that the remedy they were given in response to their complaint, was insufficient or they believe that the organisation failed to acknowledge its mistakes.

A persistent criticism of government is the lack of women in senior roles. As two female non-executive directors, what are your thoughts on the gender imbalance in government? How can Whitehall and other public organisations improve the number of senior women?

JT: I have to say that in my 15 years as a non-executive director within the NHS I have not sat on boards where men significantly outnumber women.

Of course, that is not to say that the problem does not exist and I believe that a mixture of men and women at board level strengthens the governance of an organisation, providing that every person is there on merit.

RS: I agree, what matters is the talents of individuals and from what I have experienced so far we have a very strong team. Having said that, it is absolutely essential that boards are diverse in all sorts of ways, including with the presence of disabled and LGBT people, and a good ethnic mix too.

At the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman we have equality and diversity as one of our four organisational values. Our workforce reflects the labour market overall. Currently, 62% of our staff are female, 16% are black, Asian or minority ethnic and 9% have a disability. Those who use our service also reflect the diversity of users of public services. Where we have found particular groups have been under represented among our users we have conducted targeted marketing campaigns to encourage people who have not been able to resolve their complaint locally to come to us. 

Both of you have backgrounds in social and healthcare. What drives you to work in this area, and what attracted you to the PHSO?

JT: My motivation for working in health and social care is down to personal experience. I am the daughter of a mother with mental illness and this has given me a deep appreciation of care issues.

As a non-executive director with 15 years’ of experience in this field, I think I have a lot to contribute. I want to work help the board provide effective leadership that ensures staff flourish to deliver professional, effective, compassionate decisions and information of a consistently high standard, commanding the respect of all.

RS: I have 13 years’ experience as a non-executive director in business dealing with customer complaints. It is important for me to be part of an organisation that seeks to ensure the public has access to a final and independent decision when they feel they have been treated unfairly.

I am driven by a sense of justice to make a difference in people’s lives. I have chosen to work with the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman because my experience of bringing justice to consumers means I can make a useful contribution to an organisation that seeks to make a difference in people’s lives by investigating complaints fairly.


Share this page