BLOG: ‘Complaints – a window into their role in good corporate governance and as the driver for improvement’, Mike Hyatt, Professional Practice Lead – Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman

Posted on 08/08/2023 by Megan Ingle.

Next year we celebrate our 50th anniversary. That’s nearly half a century investigating complaints about councils. Each year we investigate thousands of cases, many shining a valuable light on people’s experience of essential public services.

We see a cross-spectrum of the challenges that local government tackles every day. For example, our investigators look at how councils, and organisations acting on their behalf, have supported young people with special needs, older adults in care and families suffering from anti-social neighbours.

We know councils daily face making tough choices about how to use public money. We’re not a court of appeal trying to second guess local decision makers. Instead, when we investigate, we decide whether organisations have correctly made their decisions.

Each complaint is someone’s real life experience of essential public services. When we find they get things wrong, we decide what needs to be done to put the situation right for the complainant, and, where appropriate, prevent similar problems for others in future. Many provide the chance to improve policies, procedures or to train staff to prevent the same problem affecting many others in future.

That’s why our focus reports pull out wider learning for the sector. The last year has seen us publish reports on key themes including unsuitable temporary accommodation, consultation on planning applications, and learning lessons from complaints about people’s human rights.

In our annual report on local government complaints , Paul Najsarek, Interim Ombudsman stresses the value we see from complaints as a tool for learning and service improvement.

We greatly value the positive, constructive, and thoughtful way most councils respond to our findings. But sometimes we repeatedly find similar faults causing injustice from complaints about the same councils. The service improvement actions we agree seemingly sometimes fail to solve an underlying problem. 

That is often a symptom of a fundamentally broken or dysfunctional system. Support for young people with special educational needs, and adequate choice of high-quality home care for older people wanting to stay independent are just two areas where we know great challenges face councils across the country.

But in recent years we’ve identified an erosion in the importance some councils place on dealing with complaints. During the pandemic many, understandably, shifted back-office staff to the frontline. Not all that resource has returned. And where it has, sometimes complaint teams tell us they don’t get the access they need to key decision makers who can make change happen.

For us, complaint handling is an everyday frontline function. At its best it drives improvement that improves lives and saves money by reducing wasted effort.

Link Officers, the key contacts we have in each council, are vital to how we work. They work best when connected well to leadership teams who can make improvements stick. Monitoring Officers are key to this. They can identify patterns of complaints, drive improvements, ask tough questions of service managers and connect with lead councillors to make key decisions.

Our latest annual report includes a section on ‘the impact of a single complaint’. In one investigation we looked at a council’s handling of a homelessness application. We found it failed to properly consider its duty to an applicant fleeing violence in another council’s area. It did not offer interim accommodation. Because of our work the council agreed to review processes, train staff and ensure it accepts future homeless applications and provides interim accommodation in line with law and guidance.

We know availability of housing for people facing this sort of crisis is in critically short supply across much of England. By calling out systemic issues like this, we are a powerful voice to influence national policy. All our findings are grounded in people’s lives and experience of public service. With the right support from you we are able, together, to learn from complaints and make a difference.

I’m delighted to be working with the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny to help support better understanding of what we do, including developing better links with combined authorities.

The structures and landscape of local government has changed a lot over the last half century of our work. But the importance of good governance remains as important now as it was in 1974.