SCOTTISH PUBLIC SERVICES OMBUDSMAN AND COMPLAINTS BEST PRACTICE
By Jim Martin, Scottish Public Services Ombudsman
Since its inception in the 2002, the office of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) has undergone significant change. As the post-devolution public sector and administrative justice landscapes have evolved, so the role and remit and the SPSO have been altered, and in recent years the increased drive for efficiencies and emphasis on public service improvement have led to further change.
From its original existence as the body that resulted from a merger of the offices that took complaints about maladministration in different areas (local government, health and Parliament and housing), the SPSO quickly grew into a ‘one-stop shop’.
In 2005, an extension to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman Act (2002) gave the Ombudsman jurisdiction over higher and further education complaints. Complaints about services in Scottish prisons came under its umbrella in 2010, and last year, its remit extended to include complaints about some licensed water and sewerage providers. The recent extensions to the SPSO’s jurisdiction mean that it now has a statutory function to look at complaints about most public services in Scotland.
In 2010, the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 provided SPSO with an additional – and unusual for Ombudsmen - role to lead improvement and best practice in complaints handling across the entire public sector.
Background to Change
The continued expansion of the SPSO’s remit came about following the logical development of the ‘one-stop shop’ ethos of the Crerar and Sinclair reviews. The Scottish Government set up its Fit-for-Purpose Complaints System Action Group (FCSAG) led by Douglas Sinclair, Chair of Consumer Focus Scotland, to look at the inconsistencies and overall poor standards in complaints handling highlighted by the Crerar review. The Group identified that organisations were failing to gather valuable feedback about their service and that complaints handling was overly complex and confusing; not user focused; and generally ‘not fit-for-purpose’.
It developed proposals for simplifying and streamlining public service complaints handling processes and landscape. Many of the FCSAG’s recommendations proposed new roles or responsibilities for the SPSO, including that we be given powers to simplify and improve complaints handling across the public sector by developing standardised complaints handling procedures. The Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 granted these powers, giving the SPSO a statutory duty to lead the development and improvement of complaints handling systems in Scotland.
Complaints Standards Authority
The SPSO’s Complaints Standards Authority (CSA) was established to take forward the new role. Through its Valuing Complaints initiative, we are working closely with public bodies to standardise and simplify complaints handling procedures and to help drive improvement.
In this new capacity, the SPSO has the potential to directly impact on customer/service user experience and the interface that occurs between a public service organisation and the service user when handling complaints. Our overall aim is to help ensure that complaints are handled more simply, more effectively and more consistently, and are resolved at the first point of contact, wherever possible. A key area is on early resolution, and capturing and using the learning from complaints to drive service improvement.
The immediate focus is on changing processes. However, equally, if not more, important is the emphasis on embedding a complaints culture that is focused on quick, early resolution where possible, and that addresses customer dissatisfaction where necessary.
Although the CSA’s primary aims are to improve the way complaints are handled from the public’s point of view, to streamline and standardise processes, and to improve the information captured through complaints handling, there is an underlying benefit in the process - reducing unnecessary cost. Although there is little published evidence available, what there is shows that the common practice of numerous tiers of review costs more than is necessary. Studies of public sector complaints handling in the UK estimate that complaints are likely to cost up to 40 times more at the escalated third stage of a process than at stage one. Evidence from these bodies suggests that, by simplfying the stages in your complaints process savings of up to 50% can be achieved in the costs of resourcing complaints handling operations. As public bodies seek to achieve the balance of reducing costs whilst maintaining the delivery and improvement of public services, the simplification of complaints systems presents a dual opportunity to save money on unnecessary and costly tiers of appeal, and provide a quicker resolution or outcome for the service user.
In March and April 2012, the CSA reached two significant milestones by publishing model complaints handing procedures (CHPs) for local authorities and registered social landlords (RSLs). Each organisation in these sectors has six months, from the publication date, to adopt an SPSO compliant CHP. In supporting local authorities and housing associations through implementation, the CSA is confident that the model CHPs will make a real difference to the way complaints are handled across all sectors.
The core components of the model CHP are the same for all sectors, and include:
- a consistent definition of what is and what is not a complaint
- a two stage process with frontline resolution within five working days and a one-off investigation stage of 20 working days
- the organisation’s final decision at investigation stage by a senior manager
- recording of all complaints, including those at the frontline where important complaints information is not normally routinely captured
- active learning from complaints through requirements to analyse, report and publicise complaints information on a regular basis.
Compliance with the new requirements will be monitored in the initial year (2012) through existing regulatory structures. In addition, from 2013, in an attempt to build in a performance driven approach to complaints handling, organisations will be required to start monitoring and benchmarking performance in complaints handling through a standard set of high level indicators which will be built into existing self-assessment mechanisms.
Progress so far has been positive with many organisations showing a clear commitment to improve the way they handle complaints. Early indications are promising., with a number of Registered Social Landlords and local authorities already having approved a complaint procedure. Further details on this are available from our Valuing Complaints website.
Organisations that have adopted or piloted the model process are demonstrating impressive improvements in their turnaround times for resolving complaints, often with over 90% resolved within five working days or less and a similar increase in customer satisfaction rates. We are confident that as organisations adopt the new CHPs they will very quickly see the benefits of the new approach both for customers and for the organisation through resolving more complaints close to the frontline and by using complaints to improve service delivery.
Get in touch
For advice or guidance documents, contact the CSA team on: 0131 240 2984 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can visit the Valuing Complaints website and join the networking forum at www.valuingcomplaints.org.uk
Report of the Independent Review of Regulation, Audit, Inspection and Complaints Handling of Public Services in Scotland. 2007 http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2007/09/25120506/0
The Scottish Government’s FCSAG
By Jim Martin, Scottish Public Services Ombudsman
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- Scottish Public Services Ombudsman and Complaints Best Practice
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- Budget Cuts: mitigating the risks for the most disadvantaged
- Why Scotland needs a smarter system for early years services
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- Social Enterprise: the way to make it happen
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Issue 3: July 2012
CAPITAL INVESTMENT AND INFRASTRUCTURE
Alex Neil gave the keynote speech at the MacKay Hannah conference on Capital Investment and Infrastructure. Afterwards he spoke with Scottish Policy Now about his plans, particularly on the scale and innovation he aims to achieve.
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- VAT Planning in Capital Projects: Saving a Fortune
- Public Procurement Problems
- Infrastructure Investment
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- The Future of Infrastructure Finance in the UK - another perspective
- Digital progress: is Hardware or Software more important?
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