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Spending watchdog hits out at public services complaints and redress system

Dialogue iStock 000009191235XSmall 146X219The system for dealing with complaints in relation to public services and providing redress is confusing for consumers and several areas – such as academies – have no formal route to independent redress, the National Audit Office has said.

In a report, Public service markets: Putting things right when they go wrong, the spending watchdog noted that consumers had to deal with many different organisations, and that they had a low awareness of which ones to turn to.

The report's findings included:

  • More than 10m people who used public services (approximately 1 in 5) in the UK last year faced problems when using those services. The problems ranged “from fairly straightforward issues, such as types of food in care homes, to serious and life-threatening safeguarding issues”.
  • Finding out how to complain was difficult for 47% of complainants in health and social care. In these areas, one in four people who did not complain after seeing or experiencing poor care did not know who to complain to. Around one-third of people contacting the ombudsmen initially contacted the wrong organisation and had to be redirected.
  • Some 320,000 users (25% of the total) had service problems in social care in 2014. The most prominent issues were poor quality of service, communications and service management.
  • Around 10% of childcare users faced problems including poor-quality advice, safety concerns and poor service quality.
  • Consumers were much less likely to complain about a public service than a private service, with almost half of users who experienced problems not complaining. The main reasons they did not complain about public services were that they did not think it would be worth the effort (35%), or they thought nothing could be done (35%).
  • Only 31% of public service complainants were satisfied with the outcome of their complaint. The main reasons users were dissatisfied were because they lacked confidence that the complaint had been taken on board, or lacked feedback on what had happened after complaining.
  • One third of councils (33%) did not provide any advocacy or support service for users looking to complain about the quality of care they receive.
  • The complaints process can take too long to provide timely redress. In 2014, 36% of complainants spent more than a year trying to resolve their problem with their local authority, care provider or school before going to the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO). An ombudsman investigation then took on average a further four months to reach a finding. In complex cases, investigations could take more than a year to conclude. In some adult social care cases the complainant was no longer alive to benefit from redress.
  • The total cost of the public sector complaints and redress system was unknown. It cost £48.5m to run the LGO and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PSHO) in 2013/14.

The NAO report, which can be viewed here, suggested that system-wide improvements were inhibited by poor central leadership. “Responsibility for different parts of the system sit with different parts of central and local government, each with different governance and accountability arrangements,” it said.

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The watchdog also claimed that public service organisations did not make enough use of complaints to improve services and there were serious impediments to doing so.

“There is no standard approach to recording or reporting on complaints. Despite some examples of good practice, data sharing is irregular and informal,” the NAO found.

The watchdog called on the Cabinet Office, which oversees public service reform working in partnership with other government departments, to nominate an authority within government to manage reforms to the complaints and redress system.

The NAO also said there should be a review of the effectiveness of complaints-handling arrangements for private providers where they received public money.

Council executives and departmental boards should meanwhile examine their own complaints and complaint handling as a matter of course and ensure that complaints handling meets best practice.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: “At present, the complaints and redress system in the public sector cannot be regarded as good value for money.

“Effective consumer and redress systems allow providers to be held accountable, improve quality and identify failure and malpractice. Many users have problems with public services, and serious detriment can and does occur.”

Morse added: “If government took the power of redress to improve public services seriously, it would recognise that the present system is incoherent and dissatisfying to users and would show urgency in reforming and rationalising the system.”

In March the Cabinet Office launched a consultation on establishing a single Public Services Ombudsman for England, bringing together the existing jurisdictions of the PSHO, the LGO and the Housing Ombudsman.

Earlier this month the PSHO released a report saying that only a third of people who felt unhappy about public services actually made a complaint. A similar percentage felt that complaining did not make a difference.

The PSHO and the LGO have both publicly backed the creation of a single ombudsman.

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