We want people to be confident that complaining about a public service is straightforward, fair and can make a difference. We are the independent and final stage in the complaints process, so I'm keen to share the steps we take to make sure all our work is of the highest standard so the public can also be confident in the service we provide.
Day to day our staff follow a robust process and make hundreds of sound decisions. Last year, we investigated 4,000 complaints about a wide range of issues from asylum applications to avoidable deaths. Given that this is an increase from 500 investigations only two years ago, it is particularly important to ensure that in opening our doors to more complainants we have maintained high quality standards.
In order to understand what people expect from a modern Ombudsman service, we undertook a comprehensive exercise to get feedback about the service we provide from people who use it, the organisations we investigate, consumer organisations, and our own staff.
We have heard that what matters most to people and gives them confidence in our decisions is being clear about what we can look at, having a transparent and fair process, and keeping people informed about their case. They also want to see how we have acted on their feedback.
Responding to this feedback, we created our Service Model, which clearly describes each step of our process. This ensures everyone has a clear understanding of how we do things and enables staff to assure complainants of a consistent, quality service.
Investigation is never a solitary activity. Colleagues rely on each other and on the support of managers who monitor cases as they progress. Line managers check draft decisions before they are shared with those involved for comment. Indeed, certain decisions - usually for complex or very serious cases - can only be signed off by senior managers. Feedback from complainants and organisations we investigate is then considered before we arrive at a final decision.
But our checks don't end there. Some cases are scrutinised by quality assurance staff from within the organisation but separate to the original investigation team, as well as by individuals independent of us.
We have a strong record of making sound decisions and doing so fairly. But, like any organisation, we accept that we do not get it right every time. If someone is not satisfied with our decision, they can ask our dedicated customer care team to look again at the case. This team examines their concerns and further explains how we arrived at our decision.
Our decisions are final but we will consider whether to review one if we appear to have got something wrong or new evidence becomes available. We have external reviewers to assess whether our decisions are sound and are the only ombudsman service to use this external mechanism.
We also survey our customers about how they found our service. We use what they tell us to inform our programme of continuous improvement through training, coaching and development. Lastly to measure and monitor our performance, a Quality Committee of non-executive directors critically assesses our processes and plans to maintain and improve the quality of our service.
Recently we have consulted widely on our Service Charter: a set of commitments to people who use our service and the organisations we investigate about what they can expect from us. With significant input from people with different perspectives on our role, the Charter is built on the principles of fair and transparent decision-making and the need to treat customers with courtesy and respect.
So all of these steps together - our Service Model, internal and external quality sampling, customer feedback, and our Quality Committee - combine to provide assurance on the quality of our service.