Collaring complaints – can ‘dip testing’ help us learn from individual failures?

Posted on 16/08/2016 by Ed Hammond. Tags:

We often talk about scrutiny’s role in handling and mitigating major systemic failure. Our publication “Hiding in plain sight” highlighted the critical responsibility for scrutiny in recognising and acting on this kind of (often catastrophic) failure for public authorities.

But where does the intelligence come from to allow scrutiny to look at these systemic issues? The answer lies in the way it deals with and oversees councils’ (and other public bodies’) complaints processes.

Dr Jane Martin, the Local Government Ombudsman, has just published her Review of Local Government Complaints 2015-16. (Old lags will recall that Jane was our first Executive Director between 2003 and 2006). The review is worth a read, not least because at the back it highlights the potential role for scrutiny in the complaints process.

Many scrutiny bodies do oversee the complaints process. They look at the time taken for complaints to be answered, the number of complaints “resolved” early in the process, the number of complaints escalated to the Ombudsman. Few look at the actual substance of those complaints. The Data Protection Act is often cited as a reason not to do so. The argument goes that it is inappropriate for councillors to look at individual, substantive complaints for privacy reasons.

In my view, this is a big mistake. Looking at whether systems are running smoothly is not the same as making sure that complaints are being resolved to the satisfaction of complainants and that – critically – the authority is learning from those experiences.

To give an anecdotal example, last year I made a serious complaint against a large public body. I wasn’t happy with the response, which I felt didn’t address the substantive point of the complaint. None of this will have been known by the organisation concerned because once that response had been sent, that was the end of the matter. There was no follow-up or any other attempt to re-engage. A serious issue – something which could have highlighted a systemic problem in the organisation concerned – will have been marked as “resolved” and filed away. I could have taken the matter further. But the experience was such a frustrating one that I decided against it – notwithstanding the serious circumstances that had given rise to the complaint in the first place.

This experience may well be atypical but it has served to shake my confidence in the quality of public bodies’ complaints systems. Of course, post-Rotherham and Mid Staffs that confidence was pretty shaky anyway. To my mind it has given an added urgency to the strongly-held views that I (and CfGS) have as an organisation about the need for strong and robust oversight of the complaints process – both procedurally and substantively.

In her report Jane suggests some “questions for local councillors” – the kinds of questions that might be asked in a scrutiny committee about complaints. They’re so good that I reproduce them below in their totality.

How does your council:

  • Actively welcome feedback from service users about how it manages complaints?
  • Report the outcomes and lessons learned from complaints to all members?
  • Provide similar information that is easily accessible for the public?
  • Consider how commissioned partners implement an effective complaints handling service?
  • Clearly signpost its complaints procedure, including the right to come to the Local Government Ombudsman, with all access points?

For me, this provides the starting point for a much more detailed, and regular, review of complaints issues. Senior managers will often undertake “dip testing” (other less awkward phrases are sometimes used) of case files in children’s and adults’ social care – looking through a given file to check on outcomes and to ensure that processes are being followed correctly. There is no reason and, importantly, specifically no information governance reason, why scrutiny cannot do the same. Complainants themselves might be contacted to get their take on the process and whether their complaint was successfully resolved. Lessons learned might be reviewed and action taken as a result checked up on.

This need not be a resource-intensive, highly formal process. Councillors can look at these issues informally, alongside officers, and report back to scrutiny in the usual way.

The important thing is to have an alternative, member-led perspective challenging an authority which sees dealing with complaints more as a matter of back-covering compliance than learning from, and apologising for, mistakes. 


About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.