Auditors urge better complaint handling for public services

17 Jun 15

The current system for dealing with complaints about public services is not effective and the government should create a central authority to ensure information is used to improve services, auditors have said.

Examining the regime for handling complaints about services provided by private firms, the National Audit Office found over 10 million people using public services faced problems last year, or approximately one in five.

These ranged from straightforward issues, such as types of food in care homes, to more serious and life-threatening safeguarding issues, the Public service markets: Putting things right when they go wrong report stated.

Among these an estimated 320,000 social care users, or around 25%, had service problems in social care in 2014. The most prominent issues included poor quality of service, communications and service management.

Also, around 10% of childcare users faced problems including poor-quality advice, safety concerns and poor service quality.

When faced with problems in services, consumers find the complaints and redress system confusing, the NAO stated. They have to deal with many different organizations, but are not always aware of which ones to turn to. There are also several areas with no formal route to seek independent redress, such as complaints about academies.

As a result of these “serious impediments”, public service organisations were also unable to make use of complaints to improve services.

For example, no standard approach to recording or reporting on complaints is used across Whitehall and the sharing of data is irregular and informal.

Auditor general Amyas Morse said that, as a result, the complaints and redress system in the public sector could not be regarded as good value for money.

“Effective consumer and redress systems allow providers to be held accountable, improve quality and identify failure and malpractice. Many users have problems with public services, and serious detriment can and does occur,” he added.

“If government took the power of redress to improve public services seriously, it would recognise that the present system is incoherent and dissatisfying to users and would show urgency in reforming and rationalising the system.”

Efforts to improve complaint handling were stymied by poor central leadership, the report stated, with responsibility split across different parts of central and local government.

In addition, independent ombudsman and complaints bodies across various parts of the public sector each had different legislative provisions, protocols and powers, although the government has plans to merge them.

The report called on the Cabinet Office, as part of its oversight of public service reform, to nominate a single authority within government to manage reforms to the complaints and redress system.

Responding to the report, a government spokeswoman said: "The information we gather from complaints is incredibly important for helping to improve public services.

"We will update legislation in this area and expect to publish a draft Bill on this topic during this Parliamentary session."

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