The New Miserabilism?
Complaints and the people who make them are often seen as confirmation of the new miserabilism – a condition that led an outburst from Tom Harris MP asking why everyone is so bloody miserable in a world where in the UK at least, we have a lot to be grateful for. A new book on complaining behaviour by Julian Baggini “The Complaint Book” (www.thecomplaintbook.com) mentions a sub-set of chronic complainants labelled by a psychologist as “help rejecting” people who prefer moaning to being given a solution. The Victor Meldrew persona certainly hit that vein.
The Ombuds View
What does the Financial Ombudsman say about all this in his latest latest Annual Report? There were two areas where numbers of complaints rose very sharply – complaints about current accounts which saw a five-fold increase and those about payment protection insurance up from 1832 in the year ending March 2007 to 10,652 by March 2008. These are both interesting example of how complaint volumes can now be driven by media and internet campaigners – chief amongst them Martin Lewis whose site moneysavingexpert.com leads on these two areas of consumer problems suggesting templates for letters and other encouragements to complain against these practices.
Hire your own complaint handler?
Another phenomenon identified by the FOS is the rise in the commercial complaint handler. In almost one in five cases referred to the Ombudsman service, consumers used the services of such a company. This is strange – after all the service is free to use. However it may be because the consumer believes that the product is too complex to understand let alone complain about – the Ombudsman specifically mentions pension and SERP-related cases where the complaint handler makes unrealistic promises about the money that they can get for the consumer with a problem.
The New Community Agenda
The FOS has set up an Access working party. The Board had asked Lord Hunt of Wirral to look at access and transparency issues in particular and now the service is looking at implementation. Walter Merricks is now looking at what he calls a more active community agenda – awareness-raising with outreach programmes. He is already claiming some success with more under 35s and more women complaining diluting the historic profile of the Ombuds-user as the retired male with a duff pension, time on his hands and a new skill in word processing.
The Heavy Mob
As Walter gets interested in the ‘soft’ skills of awareness raising etc, the OFT and BERR are looking at the role of the enforcers and how that sits with the new emphasis on principle-based law. 23 laws have been repealed and now as of end May this year we have The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations which implement the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive. 31 specific trading practices – my favourite is the one that bans the ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing. See all 31 practices here (links to PDF file at OFT).
As part of this new approach, principled but pragmatic, the Office of Fair Trading and the Department for Business, Entreprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) are looking to use the improved complaint data that they are getting from sources such as Consumer Direct to direct the searchlight towards those areas of the greatest consumer detriment. The OFT has recently published some more work in this area in April 2008. The amount of consumer detriment was estimated at £6.6 billion.
Remember “Jewels to be Treasured”?
So the miserable complainer is getting taken very seriously indeed. Long ago in another political area/ universe, the then Secretary of State for Health Virginia Bottomley characterised complaints – and by extension we suppose those who make them – as “jewels to be treasured”. A leap across time to the present brings us back to the health service and our current pre-occupation with health and social care services user involvement and engagement.
Complaining and Engaging
After all the complainant is someone who has made the choice to become engaged to pursue an individual goal – apology, correction, compensation. That initial individual impetus to action can cross-over into the more sustained and collective experience of engagement. We have noticed that many of those who come forward for patient forums and liaison groups have had an experience of health provision which has made a deep impression on them. The experience of complaining can act as the recruiting sergeant for patient engagement – the challenge of that is a double one. We have to understand how to convert what is often a negative into a positive directed towards improvement for all rather than vengeance on the few associated with the initial failure and we must make the experience of joining a patient body such as the LINks one that sustains commitment over the longer term.
Dare to Discuss Being Happy
My thought is that we have to turn to the work highlighted at the recent summer party held by the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute. Yes of course it rained but the topic was a daring one – Happiness. The research shows that happiness once a reasonable level of material comfort has been reached comes from elements in our lives associated like getting married, being a member of a faith group and attending services regularly, using some extra leisure to spend time with family and friends and staying healthy. This last attribute will help you get beyond the trough of the middle years – the slough of despond linked in particular with having teenagers sharing the family home. Once they have gone, the happiness line slants upward only interrupted by the death of a spouse.
Can we add to the list – membership of a LINk?
Or perhaps participating in a quick survey?