Private vs Public Sector Complaint Handling – Discard the Difference?

Some simple steps for either sector

The debate, I think, has moved on and while there may still be differences, I would argue that the assumption is not useful anymore. If an organisation no matter what market sector it inhabits, takes the following simple steps (set out in the presentation by a major government department), it is well on the way to competent complaint management:

  •  look at the number and complexity of its complaint management processes,
  • simplify them,
  • give more autonomy and responsibility to its first line of problem solvers in the interests of first contact resolution,
  • shorten response times e.g by using the telephone,
  • do some simple measures of complainant satisfaction and
  • create actionable management reports.

Easier said than done perhaps – the project needs a significant amount of high level support with an understanding of the risks involved to blow away deeply embedded traditions of caution and defensiveness – but definitely doable. The public sector now has its own Pied Piper for those in complaint and complainant management to follow – the Public Services and Health Ombudsman in England and the associated bodies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. A tradition of openness and learning over time has given the Office a good few decent tunes to tempt complaint handlers.

From street to street he piped advancing,

And step for step they followed dancing

The blueprint for complaint handling excellence is there to be followed and applied.

The elephant NOT in the room

So is there anything more to say or do about complaint handling especially in the public sector? Problem Number 1 – what about the NHS complaint handling?  Out of some 60 attendees, there was no one there from the health service sector other than representatives from the Health Ombudsman’s office and the Ombudsman herself. I know there is a lot going on in the NHS at the moment but the absence is striking. At a time when the bill for claims is going through the roof, the health service has to take a grip on this criticial interface between it and the citizens it serves. Has it become so used to being lectured, examined and criticised that everything bounces off its thick institutional hide? This year’s latest test of institutional immunity is the bomb is being prepared by the Dr Oppenheim of the health services world. Mr Francis has promised his report by 15 October 2012.

Let the Citizen In

It is a shame that we need public enquiries before we can see what went on. A common characteristic of complaint handling in any sector or organisation is the extent to which it is a closed system where investigator and investigated lock horns in privacy. It is a closed system albeit one where we might expect to see some public feedback after the investigation and verdict. Can we open this up more to the views of users, citizens and consumers at large and what good would it do?

A complaint is for most of us a one-off event notwithstanding that the chronic complaint handler certainly exists and their numbers are growing (true?). Also this stressful process does come to an end. For those who do not give up and stick it out through the full process, there are exchanges of words of regret, promises of future remedy and perhaps a cash settlement. It all seems cut and dried. Not on the face of it promising ground for any form of engagement or participation by the public, citizens and complainants?

Engage and Learn

Perhaps the place to start thinking about where engagement could add value, is making the most of the complainants’ learning – what happened to them that they could look at and learn from and communicate to others? They have been through the mill and have something to say. Examples – what made one person persist and another give up? What happens after the decision? Do things improve generally or for the individual concerned? Are they branded as a trouble maker? Could citizens have a role in determining what sort of outcomes are proportionate and appropriate? A Citizens Forum working with Parliamentarians perhaps could comment on the annual report or why not write one of their own. Citizen input need not come just from complainants but from all of us who receive a service from the State.

Fashion Labels

We have seen the labels come and go with consumer fashion – Citizen Charters, Bills of Rights, Constitutions, Manifestos and Codes of Practice – some are no doubt due to come round again. Is this an area where we do not need the label – just a focus on one particular form of citizen experience and feedback. Use all the techniques and channels available to us to experiment with tapping into an experience, comparing it with the experience of others, is there wisdom in that group or crowd? For those who insist on a label, citizens certainly have a role to play in building a restorative justice system whose priorities and processes reflect the input of citizen and consumer.

Worth a try.

The Moore Adamson Craig Partnership supports user and public participation, trains lay representatives and develops responsive health, care and education organisations. We are ready to work with and support all those who want to make sense and a success of the new structures of patient and public engagement within the new arrangements for health and social care commissioning and providing. Feel free to contact us to discuss the opportunities.


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