The Public Administration Select Committee are in the news for advocating a single entry point for public services complaints.
Para 42. “We agree with Sir David Varney and the National Audit Office that the Government should explore the scope for a common access point nationwide for all non-emergency public services. This would provide a single point of contact for impartial information on where to make a complaint or seek redress. We restate our predecessor Committee’s recommendation in favour of just such a service-‘Public Services Direct’-which would offer an easy access, one-stop-shop approach to a complex web of public services. Public Services Direct should be both a gateway to government organisations and services, and a source of basic advice to public service users. It would act as the starting point for people unsure of how or where to lodge their initial complaint, and would provide them with the appropriate information and guidance.” When Citizens Complain, Fifth Report
In the terms we use about complaint handling, the above is a referral site. What the public want is a problem-resolution site. Most people build complaint handling processes offering an initial point of contact and then a second one if the problem does not get sorted there. Where the complainant wants to see Houses of Correction, the public service build great Palaces of Escalation. For resolution, read referral.
The committee quotes this example:
“…for agencies of the Department for Work and Pensions complaints are dealt with initially by staff at local level. Complainants can then escalate a complaint to line management as necessary. If they are still unsatisfied they can raise the case directly with the Business Chief Executive, and then appeal to the Independent Case Examiner.57 Finally, the Ombudsman can consider the case if it is referred to her by a Member of Parliament.”
The big growth in the public services is in the intermediate complaint handling organisations:
“There are also an increasing number of independent, or quasi-independent, complaint review bodies to which complainants can turn before raising matters with the Ombudsman. These intermediate or second-tier complaint handlers exist particularly where the Ombudsman receives a large number of complaints about an organisation. They include:
- The Adjudicator’s Office, which investigates complaints about HMRC, the Valuation Office Agency, the Public Guardianship Office and the Insolvency Service.
- The Healthcare Commission, which at present is responsible for reviewing complaints about the National Health Service (NHS) or independent healthcare services that have not been resolved at local level. From April 2009, however, the Healthcare Commission will no longer have a role in complaints handling, as complaints processes for health and social care will be brought together and the system streamlined to emphasise local resolution of complaints.
- The Independent Case Examiner, who reviews complaints about DWP bodies including the Child Support Agency, the Pension Service and Jobcentre Plus.
- The Independent Complaints Reviewer, who investigates complaints about a range of organisations including the Audit Commission, the Charity Commission, the Housing Corporation, the National Archives and the Land Registry.”
These organisations are sort of junior organisationally specific Ombudsoffices but without the clout or the power of being the last stop.
The committee’s suggestion for a one stop shop will merely add another layer to an already complex and expensive system that institutionalises delay, decreases satisfaction and increases escalation. Hooray for the Health Service that has abolished the middle layer.
Also people at entry points for complex multi-organisational or multi-cause complaints systems while often recruited from the ranks of the beginners, the juniors and the newly-joined have to be the best qualified people in the whole system. They must have extraordinary gifts of diagnosis, have access to completely up-to-date knowledge about who does what together with telephone numbers for named individuals and be possessed of extra-ordinary personal attributes of empathy, listening skills and clarity of expression.
Do you think ‘Public Service Direct’ could deliver that? How many years would pass as everyone from departments sat round tables evolving protocols, manuals, interrogative algorithms, contact detail updating processes? There would of course be a need for an independent complaint handler for complaints about Public Service Direct. Decades would drift by. NHS Direct anyone?
What surprised me finally was not to see NACAB’s name listed amongst those supplying evidence. They are at last trying to grapple with the complexities of how best to concentrate and manage resources to advise people on the whole range of public services and products. Give them £10 or £20 Million for 7 years and tell them to set up the front door – they seem to be well down that path already. See http://www.nacab.org.uk/ and their change programme:
Year one (2005/06)
In the first year, we had a good look at what we were already doing, produced an award-winning film showing what we might look like in the future and completed a number of key initiatives:
- designing a new approach to service delivery
- piloting an out of hours, telephone, email and chat service
- setting up three centres to pilot the new approach to service delivery
- developing a set of national referral protocols
- commissioning the production of a new advice kiosk
Year two (2006/07)
Having successfully completed year one we are now moving forward by:
- establishing a single national telephone advice number
- setting up a national email advice service
- improving access to web based information and services
- introducing the new approach to service delivery
- considering how interactive (chat room style) advice can best be used
- forging productive partnerships with other agencies and advice providers
And it goes on.
It is not a question of avoiding re-inventing the wheel – more a question of not adding yet another redundant wheel when we already have all the wheels we need to propel this particular vehicle thank you.