The UK Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman is 47 years old. Hire the restaurant, bring out the cake, blow out the candles and sing. But hold the self-congratulatory speeches – the Public Administration Select Committee sees the Office as being in danger of being ‘stuck in time’ and in danger of not being ‘fit for purpose’. Time to revamp and revive the Ombuds Office with a new and extended remit.
First steps our MPs urge, is to remove the old MP filter whereby the public could only access the Ombudsman service via their MP. The filter was abolished for NHS complaints and it is high time that the same process was adopted for other complaints. The ‘only in writing’ provision should go as well. No problems with any of this – this sort of update and revision of procedures is not something that need wait almost 50 years before being changed.
The interesting stuff comes with the discussion on the extension of the remit to give the Ombuds the power to investigate issues of the Office’s own choosing using a full armoury of investigative tools. The Committee’s report sets out the case for these “own-initiative” powers to look into an issue on the basis of evidence from elsewhere eg another agency or regulator, Parliament. The Ombudsman needs a bigger and deeper pool to fish in to be sure that an issue is something that affects lots of people in a serious way – the number of cases reaching the Ombudsman on any one issue can be very small. Fully escalated complaints are as is often said only the tip of the iceberg of the total consumer detriment. Any investigation of root cause for systemic failure needs to see more of that iceberg and get a feel for the ‘multiplier’ ie if the Ombud sees 10 complaints, can we say with any certainty that this means that 100 or 100,000 people have had the same problem. As we have seen with the PPI show, the final number of complainants can be huge. Once the decision is taken to launch something on an ‘own-initiative’ basis, what sort of set-up do you need?
SORT it out
SORT is the Special Ombudsman Response Team of the Ontario Ombudsman – a reassuringly effective Public Office for those of us whose only other point of reference for provincial and municipal government in that Canadian Province is the eccentric conduct of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford – the man whose idea of an explanation for having smoked crack cocaine was that he must have been in a ‘drunken stupor’. The SORT activity is a rather more sober affair as covered in the 2012-2013 Annual Report which cites work with some of the 10 provincial Ministries, the police service – even a look at Slots at Racetracks. The areas of investigation often looks into events like police behaviour that would be handled in the UK by topic or institution-focused agencies such as the Police Complaints Commission.
The Terrain of Redress
This assortment of activities – whether self-initiated or prompted by complaints – covering a wide range of administrative areas is commendable but does raise questions in a UK or English context of how an energetic and inquisitive Ombudsman would work with the plethora of agencies and vested interests. This is an issue the Parliamentarians raise themselves. The Terrain of Redress resembles a densely populated Tolkien map of Mordor – here be the 100 Tribunal Wood; over there the 28 dark peaks of Complaint Handling Bodies; there be the dreaded 17 pools of the Ombuds Marshes and over there in the Realm of Health and Social Care, the Tower of Monitor and hark! the eldritch cries of the wraith-like Health Regulators – and no Gollum to guide the citizen through. Switching authorial horses, this is Never Never Land for the complainant – never know where to go and never know what the process is.
We shall no doubt have the arguments about whether the specialist Ombuds agencies – ie the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman – should be subsumed into the Super Ombuds Office in England will be with us for a while. The Scots say that bringing the bodies together and developing a common approach works for them – they have founded the Complaints Standards Authority – a training unit which has delivered 71 courses over the last year.
Let us look forward to the debate and as a first step, let the Ombuds offices improve awareness and visibility by making public its detailed investigation reports. The example to follow is that of the Financial Services ombudsman whose regularly published case summaries are a training course in themselves – the FSO sets out what was decided here in favour of the consumer as well as cases the complaint was not upheld.
One last thought – can we see some financial estimates please for the Big or Super Ombuds Office? High level complaint handling is already very expensive on a per case basis. We once estimated the cost of a fully escalated complaint taking account of all the hands it passes through at about £20k – add to that special investigative teams and research budgets and you have a big budget operation. It may well be worth it but someone needs to make the case. The nettles to be grasped here are numerous – one of the most interesting is charging case fees.