Ombudsman tells councils to ‘focus on the basics’ when changing services

6 Dec 18

Councils must not “throw out the rule book” as they redesign services to cope with increasing financial pressure, the sector’s ombudsman has warned.

Local authorities need to ensure they “get the basics right” when bringing in major change, local government and social care ombudsman Michael King said.

A report from the watchdog, published on Tuesday, noted that local government had experienced “the most intense period of change in a generation” over the last decade.
“The way councils have adapted and innovated in the face of huge challenges is to be admired,” King said.

“But the lesson from this report is for councils to get the basics right and not throw out the rule book when working under pressure.

“The core principles of good administration are more important than ever when undergoing major transformation.”

The report is based on nearly 40 case studies in which the ombudsman has identified systemic problems stemming from councils changing the way they provided services.

King said a “relatively small number of complaints are brought to us” but added that he hoped the report would help authorities avoid difficulties when planning major change projects.

The report identified four common areas for councils to be aware of and which show how ineffective planning can lead to service failure:

  • Accommodating longer backlogs. The watchdog said councils should use short-term staff to tackle backlogs.
  • Reviewing eligibility and charging policies. Councils must use discretion to decide what level of service complies with statutory obligations. The ombudsman “will be critical where councils adopt blanket policies that fail to anticipate wider consequences”.
  • Delivering services through new organisation, partnerships and commercial arrangements. The ombudsman found in some cases new structures were in place but staff did not know how to use procedures.
  • Restructuring and redesigning services. “Restructuring and service redesign is no excuse for fault. Effective management of change should meant the risks to business continuity are properly assessed and mitigated,” the report said.

Glen Garrod, president of the Association of Directors of Adult Services, said called the report “helpful”.

He said: “We welcome the case studies and check lists of how councils can respond to complaints at a time when they are having to manage reduced budgets, and are not necessarily able to do what older and disabled people and their families would want.”

This week, Northamptonshire County Council announced that it was changing the way it delivers social care services by investing in in-house delivery.

Read PF’s interview with local government and social care ombudsman Michael King here.

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