The government could make complaining easier

The delivery of public services has transformed since the first ombudsman scheme was set up in the UK in 1967.

This is the year that the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and that the United Kingdom began the first round of negotiations for entry into the European Economic Community.

Only this month the NHS announced 29 integrated care pilots, to bring together hospitals, community services, GPs and care homes. And this is alongside the changes that will take place in Manchester next April when the council will be taking responsibility for the city’s NHS budget.

Many services are now delivered through a combination of public, private and third sector providers.

But our ombudsman schemes - covering health, social care and housing, central and local government - have not kept pace with these changes. As a result, users are often left confused as to which ombudsman to turn to if things go wrong or haven’t been resolved locally.

We want everyone using public services to be confident that when they need to complain it will be straightforward and fair, and will make a difference. Almost four out of ten of people that are unhappy with public services do not raise a complaint, because they do not believe it will make a difference.

We want to see changes in how public ombudsman services operate so that they work better for citizens, for Parliament and for the tax payer.

We want a unified ombudsman service covering all public services delivered in England and matters reserved to the UK.

We want citizens to have the right to choose to come to us directly or through a representative, and in a variety of forms, including by digital communication.

Currently our legislation states that complaints about UK government departments and their agencies, such as the Department for Work and Pensions and the DVLA, have to be referred to us via an MP. This understandably puts people off complaining to us. Our legislation also states that people have to make a complaint to us about the NHS in writing. However we are now taking these complaints over the phone ourselves and writing them up for the complainant, if they wish us to do so.

We want a unified ombudsman service covering all public services delivered in England and matters reserved to the UK.

We know that the most vulnerable and marginalised in society are the least likely to complain. We want to extend access to justice to those individuals by being able to launch an investigation without the need to receive a specific individual complaint, where there is evidence of potential service failure.

People shouldn’t have to guess whether or not the service they are receiving falls within or without the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction. We can and do investigate complaints about public services provided by the private and third sector. However all public services delivered in England should be subject to our investigation unless specifically exempt. This would help plug any holes in ombudsman provision, such as certain aspects of primary and secondary education.

An ombudsman’s role extends well beyond that of a complaints handler. The ability to share insight and learning from complaints to help others drive improvements should be explicit in the legislation and allow for the unified public ombudsman to act as a ‘design authority’ with the ability to promote good practice and guidance on the operation of complaints systems.

These much needed legislative changes will help improve public services for all.

The government has now published a consultation on proposals for a unified Public Ombudsman Service. It offers an important opportunity for the public to participate in the debate and I hope that as many people as possible support the call for a service that is better for citizens, better for Parliament and better value for money.

Now is the time to seize the opportunity for reform.