BLOG: Using insights from the Ombudsman to inform scrutiny
We have long recommended that councils’ scrutiny functions have their ear to the ground with regard to complaints made about council services (we published a blog about it in 2019, which you can find here).
The way that councils deal with complaints – and the way that they learn from complaints overall – is a key part of the corporate governance process. A mature, learning organisation identifies where it has made mistakes, it owns up to them, and it provides swift and appropriate remediation. It also learns from these experiences. Dealing with complaints in this way helps us to be accountable to residents – and recognises that on many matters, local people rely on the council for their security and wellbeing. We have to take these responsibilities seriously.
Complaints also provide vital evidence and insight to support scrutiny’s work. While scrutiny’s role is not to look into individual complaints, scrutiny members and officers do need to be receptive when members of the public bring matters of concern to their attention, and need to be prepared to pick issues up if they seem to be systemic in nature. One example might be in relation to housing repairs, where many and frequent complaints from social housing tenants may be indicative of a wider problem around proactive and reactive maintenance.
Councils have their own complaints processes – and scrutiny needs to have regard to the outcomes of those processes. This is not so much about the throughput of complaints (the percentage that are investigated and resolved within a certain timescale) as their outcome. Do complainants go away satisfied? What are we doing to reduce the total number of complaints overall?
If complaints cannot be resolved locally, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman is responsible for investigating them. They are the final, independent part of the complaints process, who step in where matters haven’t been resolved but where local complaints procedures have been exhausted. The LGSCO investigates to determine who may have been at fault, and recommends action to remediate the situation if necessary.
There is a separate ombudsman service for complaints about housing. Together, the two Ombudsmen have recently consulted on a Joint Complaints Handling Code. Depending on the final outcome of this exercise, reflecting on councils’ actions against the expectations in such a Code could be a good way for overview and scrutiny functions to assure themselves that arrangements are in place to deal with complaints promptly and meaningfully.
There are two sets of documents which are produced by the LGSCO that are likely to be of real benefit to scrutiny, and that we’d recommend that you have regard to in thinking about your future work if you are a scrutiny practitioner.
The annual Ombudsman letter
The first is the annual letter that the Ombudsman will send to all councils. This letter, addressed to the council’s chief executive, provides advice on complaint statistics, with a particular focus on:
- Complaints upheld. Where fault is identified by the LGSCO in how a council has dealt with an issue. Councils can expect that the proportion of complaints upheld will have gone up in the last couple of years, as the LGSCO has changed their methodology to be more selective in respect of those complaints they take forward for detailed investigation. The annual letter will usually compare the “uphold” rate to that in similar organisations. For scrutiny, it is useful to understand ;
- Compliance with recommendations. The LGSCO usually expects 100% compliance.
- The provision of a satisfactory remedy. This is about the council putting a remedy in place that the LGSCO thinks is appropriate in putting things right – so this is not necessarily about the complainant themselves being satisfied with the outcome.
Because these statistics are provided to every authority, they provide a good way to compare against other councils (comparative information is available on the LGSCO website). While such comparisons can feel rather arbitrary in nature, they are a good way of ensuring that performance is not slipping too far away from what is generally expected – and to challenge on actions to improve if performance against other authorities is poor. That said, it is worth noting that – for some councils – the absolute number of complaints investigated by the LGSCO may be quite low, and statistics should be read in this context.
The second is the wider public-facing material that the LGSCO produces in support of its work. This reflects the organisation’s important role, on top of dealing with individual complaints, of ensuring that attention is brought to matters which may have wider applicability to the sector. The LGSCO does this in three ways:
- Public reports. Where cases are considered that – in the LGSCO’s view – raise serious issues or matters of public interest, those specific cases are highlighted through the production of a public report. This sits on top of the wider obligation on the LGSCO to produce statements of reasons to record its decisions. (These reports are also issued where the council in question does not agree with the LGSCO’s recommendations);
- Focus reports. Where it identifies issues that might have a more systemic nature, the LGSCO produces “focus reports”, which draw together evidence of action on the same issues from around the country. These reports provide extremely useful insight for scrutiny activity;
- Scrutiny questions. The LGSCO have put on their website a list of possible questions for overview and scrutiny on a wide range of policy matters arising from complaints. You can find these questions at https://www.lgo.org.uk/information-centre/reports/scrutiny-questions. They are derived from the Focus Reports that the LGSCO produces.
This material has been produced with funding from HM Government