Today we published the first annual Ombudsman’s Casework Report. It gives an insight into the wide range of issues we investigate, and the importance of making a complaint if things go wrong. It demonstrates our increasing transparency as an ombudsman service.
Investigations in 2019
Last year PHSO saw a number of cases involving government departments as well as the health service. From child maintenance payments to green energy, from fishing to driving licenses, the report shows the breadth of our investigations. What connects them is that something has gone wrong with a public service.
In one case, our investigation succeeded in getting Ofgem to revoke a demand for £20,000 made in error. Our early intervention meant that a full investigation was not necessary, saving valuable time both for the complainant and the Department.
In another case, a single mother received over £10,000 in child maintenance payments, which she missed out on over a number of years because of failings by the Child Support Agency.
Barriers to improvement
There are many more cases like this in the report. Together, they show that public service failures affect people from all walks of life. The report also highlights the difference that making a complaint can have. When people come to PHSO we can hold organisations to account, making sure they learn from mistakes and improve services.
Despite this, complaints about government bodies account for only a small proportion of our work. There are various reasons for this, partly old legislation that prevents people from accessing the service directly.
Before someone can bring a complaint to us, they must first go through a sometimes complex and lengthy local complaints processes and then refer their complaint to their MP. We suspect this is simply too much for many people, especially those in vulnerable circumstances.
I have long called for this barrier to be removed and am supported in this by fellow UK Public Service Ombudsmen. I hope that, as with the NHS, complaints about the government departments will soon come to us directly rather than requiring referral from an MP. The outdated legislation behind this urgently needs to be changed so that more people are able to make their voices heard.
Another obstacle in the way of service improvement is that PHSO is unable to look into an issue unless it is on behalf of a specific complainant who has come to us. This means that potential problems and failings which we have been made aware in advance or instead of a complaint go unchecked. We are currently seeking to secure these much needed own-initiative powers from Parliament.
The Casework Report offers valuable lessons for improvement across public services. It is only when mistakes are acknowledged that things can get better.
For the NHS, the forthcoming Complaint Standards Framework will offer essential guidance on how organisations can treat complaints as an opportunity to develop, rather than something to deny or defend against.
For government departments, I hope that the cases highlighted in the report show how the Ombudsman can make a positive difference, protecting people’s rights and livelihoods. Imagine what more we could do if given the powers to reach our full potential.
Read or download the annual Ombudsman's Casework Report 2019.