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Making a difference

Director of Investigations

I have been at the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) for just over nine months now – it has been an eventful time.

When writing this blog I have had the opportunity to reflect upon the issues and challenges of the organisation as I saw them when I arrived and look at the progress that has been made - it has been significant.

Any new member of a team who arrives will spend time getting to know the organisation, its nuances, its character, and of course the people who make it work. When I arrived the organisation was going through great change: new management, new ideas but also a very strong sense of history. It was important to me that we tried to establish a sense of the organisation settling, of continuity and ownership of the many challenges that we faced.

Change is never an easy process and modernising a service in particular must always occur in a considered way. Change does not always have to occur because things have not been right or badly done. The decision to change is sometimes a case of adapting to a new environment where what the public expect of us is now different and the service we must provide has to meet those expectations.

Every day someone at the PHSO makes a difference to a member of the public who has been failed by the actions, or inactions, of a public service organisation. Every week I receive emails and phone calls from managers here with thank you notes from people who have used our service and felt that difference. This is in cases that we don’t uphold as well as the ones that we do.

Engagement with people who come to us is paramount, as is cutting to the heart of the issues being complained about. When a member of the public has spent a long time in the complaints system, long enough to come to us, the key reasons why the complaint was brought in the first place can become lost amongst the frustration. It is our job to clearly and fairly get to those key issues so that we can provide the answers that are needed and agree upfront that these are the right matters to pursue.

This is the same for when we gather our evidence, and work out what is relevant and what is not, in an efficient and timely manner. Where necessary we must get an account from those complained about and understand their side of the story.

It is in this process that we can understand both sides but also demonstrate that we are able to do so and use it to inform our decision making. All of this is done by talking to people and listening to what they have to tell us.

In short, someone who wishes to bring a complaint to us can expect that we will listen to what they have to say, agree on what the important parts of the case will be, we will look to find out what those who have been complained about have to say and we will gather information and evidence about what should have happened compared to what actually did.

We must present our findings consistently and explain our decisions in a way that people reading them can understand how we made the adjudications that we did, whether they agree with them or not.

Our recommendations must be proportionate and aim to tackle the problems that have been brought to us in the first place. We must have the confidence in our own ability to reach the right decision and to stand by them. Many of these things are happening now but we must continue to progress.

In short, someone who wishes to bring a complaint to us can expect that we will listen to what they have to say, agree on what the important parts of the case will be, we will look to find out what those who have been complained about have to say and we will gather information and evidence about what should have happened compared to what actually did. In this final analysis is the answer to whether a case will be upheld or not.

As we go through the process of changing our organisation to meet these challenges I can see great things ahead. The ability to use the wealth of information we gather in an intelligent way to improve public services, to educate and inform the health service and government departments about what we are seeing and why it matters and establishing ourselves as a vital part of the landscape in shaping the future of public services when it comes to dealing with complaints. It will take time but the importance of this work cannot be underestimated.