26 April 2016

The drive to join up public services continues to dominate reform agendas. How can we ensure that, in a changing public service landscape, the role of complaints in spotting problems and driving improvements is retained? Alice Lilly explains.

Momentum behind joining up and integrating public services around citizens is increasing. As more powers are handed to local areas through ‘devolution deals’, there is now greater opportunity to trial new, collaborative ways of working and shape services around local, citizen needs and experiences. Although evidence around whether joining up actually does improve outcomes for citizens remains patchy, the IfG has found how crucial citizen engagement with public services can be – and complaints are a key avenue for this, allowing service providers to gain insights from users’ experience. As Nesta has highlighted, complaints provide a crucial source of intelligence and can be a real driver for service improvement. This hinges on creating a positive culture around complaints, which focuses on learning from them rather than trying to apportion blame.

There is a risk, however, that a more joined up delivery system will become overly complex and discourage citizens from making any complaints at all – losing a crucial spur for improvement. Three key issues need to be addressed to make the most of citizen complaints in improving outcomes on the ground:

1. Simplify the complaints process for citizens

The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) reported at a recent IfG public service markets event that service users often struggle to know who to complain to. This can prevent users from making complaints, even when they experience problems. Likewise, a recent report from the CAB found that 45% of people felt they had experienced poor service within the last year – but only 22% made a formal complaint. These users tended to suggest that they didn’t complain because they thought that the process would take too long – and might not lead to change. As services become more integrated, there is a risk that the complaints process could become even more difficult for citizens to navigate.

Blurring the boundaries between organisations may make it harder for citizens to know who to complain to when problems do arise. Clear lines of accountability are crucial to this – as is ensuring that these are transparent and accessible to the public.

2. Clarify jurisdictions for local partners

The current system is confusing not only for citizens, but also for local partners. Some local authorities have expressed concern that they receive complaints for services which they do not control, and therefore do not have the capacity to deal with the problems (but nonetheless are blamed for them). In a more integrated system, it may become even harder for authorities to work out who has ultimate jurisdiction for complaints.

The Government’s proposal to create a single Public Service Ombudsman – due to be introduced before the end of this parliamentary session – may help with this. It will also be equally important for local partners to clarify jurisdictions for complaints when drawing up partnership arrangements between different providers.

3. Use data to drive system-wide change

Clear jurisdictions and lines of accountability are necessary to ensure citizen complaints can be heard and dealt with. However, to ensure that complaints drive system-wide change, it will be crucial to aggregate complaints data and use it to quickly identify system-wide problems, as the CAB have recently argued. Being clear in partnership arrangements on what complaints data will be collected, and how it will be shared among partners, is crucial to harnessing the potential of complaints to drive system-wide improvement in services.

Joining up services around citizens can offer real opportunities to improve outcomes. Yet, if users find it difficult to complain when things go wrong, or authorities can’t translate complaints into improvements, then these opportunities may be missed.  

Further information

It is proposed that, initially, the Public Service Ombudsman will encompass the work of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman and the Local Government Ombudsman; although other ombudsmen will be able to be incorporated into the role later.