When applying to become a Board member of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman I found myself reflecting on how most of us aren't aware of the system around us until something goes wrong. When it does go wrong, having the ability to challenge – to have access to redress and protection – goes to the heart of what it means to be a citizen.
I've spent much of my working life listening to the experiences of people who use services. And this has been quite a diverse range of people. In my career I've worked in health and social care; in legal services regulation and improving access to justice; in immigration and refugee policy; and spent some time in international development. On first glance this could look quite disparate but my roles have always had the same core: listen to those who use our services and then use what they've told me to improve the services for those who follow.
One of the things I've enjoyed most about being Chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel has been working with the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) and being able to develop an understanding of the broader redress landscape. In the past this has included benchmarking LeO against other Ombudsman and ADR schemes. I passionately believe that Ombudsman schemes are so much more than a complaints system. They're about raising standards.
When something goes wrong we all of us have a responsibility to listen and do what we can to ensure things don't go wrong again - this can be about the wide-scale systemic failings but it's also about the ongoing communications failings and misunderstandings that lie at the heart of so many complaints. I was a Complaints Convenor for South West London back in the '90s and that's what I learnt most - the importance of communication. Those lessons have stayed with me along with picking up some others along the way.
In my induction for the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, I'm concentrating on understanding the customer journey - what's it like from the moment you first contact the Ombudsman through to the point at which you might receive the assessment decision or the final investigation report. I have been struck by the deep-seated commitment of all the staff I've met and their core values - their belief that what we all do makes a genuine difference to people's lives.
A couple of things have particularly stood out for me and I've inevitably reflected on them based on my experience of other Ombudsman schemes. The first is about showing empathy - for too long Ombudsman schemes have been so worried about being independent that they've lost their ability to empathise and show compassion when those who complain are vulnerable and distressed. The second is about recognition of the importance of ongoing communication. This is important for those who are complained about as well as the person making the complaint.
I'm very aware that I'm joining the organisation at a significant time. I recognise the journey that everyone has been on and it's why I'm particularly pleased to be Chair of the Quality Committee. Over the last year the Committee has been focussing on understanding what we mean by quality. That might sound really obvious but it's essential to understand what good looks like, and feels like. And then we've got to check that we're delivering this at every stage of contact with the Ombudsman. Much of the Committee's focus this year will be on aligning measurements against the new Service Charter. The Charter is brief, it should be. What matters is what lies behind it; how it is brought alive and implemented in practice. This is the priority of the Quality Committee and a personal priority.
There's already a huge amount of information that the Ombudsman collects to check the quality of what we do - customer feedback, case sampling, quality reviews of investigation reports, external audits. The focus of the Quality Committee this year will be about how this is all brought together so that we can clearly set this out for all to see and use. This is about providing a simple and coherent way of measure success and providing clear and well-articulated targets so that all of us can judge our performance.
Throughout this I'll keep going back to my core values and principles. Meeting with NHS England recently, they shared a story about how they were speaking to over 40 NHS complaints managers and not one had anything to do with the quality improvement agenda of their organisation. This isn't good enough. Complaints are about improving quality. This is what motivates so many of us to complain in the first instance: "I don't want this to happen to someone else".
I won't be losing sight of this in serving the Ombudsman.