Dealing with complaints at scrutiny

Posted on 22/05/2019 by Ed Hammond.

For a long time, scrutiny professionals and councillors alike were clear that scrutiny was not a place for individual complaints for local people to be aired. Scrutiny is about strategic issues – high level stuff – and the use of high quality data is the only way to understand those issues. Tempering that work by focusing on “anecdote” – stories about how services are delivered at the most local level – has often been seen as dangerous, pointless – a distraction.

This all changed in the aftermath of the Stafford Hospital scandal. It emerged, over the course of the subsequent inquiry, that patients at the hospital had made attempts to bring their attentions to the concern of overview and scrutiny at one of the local councils, but had been rebuffed for this reason – that scrutiny’s role is not to deal with complaints. Another opportunity to uncover the truth had been lost.

In light of the publication of the Government’s overview and scrutiny guidance recently, it’s time to reappraise scrutiny’s role in looking at, and understanding, how services are really delivered at local level – and listening to people’s real life experiences in doing so.

In doing so, it is very difficult to come up with hard and fast rules or principles. It seems clear that scrutiny should not actively take a role in shadowing or even adjudicating issues around complaints when those complaints, and being investigated. But where a complaint isn’t resolved to someone’s satisfaction, and where that issue might point to wider issues or concerns about the service in question, how ought scrutiny to proceed?

Fairness, transparency and the need to manage the expectations of complainants are all critical factors. Scrutiny will not be able on its own to unpick and resolve individual people’s problems, but it can seek to better understand those problems and the impact they have had on people’s lives, and can try to understand if those problems have wider implications. Does a complaint suggest wider problems at the council? By bringing exposure to this particular person’s experience, will it help the council to improve?

And how should we do it? Raising a complaint can be a traumatic experience; the circumstances leading up to it will, by definition, be difficult and unpleasant. Giving people a voice at a formal committee meeting – to talk about their experiences – could be empowering and cathartic, but it could also be daunting and unpleasant. It will also be unpredictable, and in the interests of scrutiny finding solutions to problems, this is a potential problem – there is little to be gained in talking around the subject for forty minutes only for no action to result. For one, it will be a disappointing experience for the member(s) of the public central to the complaint in question.

Effective use, by scrutiny, of complaints has to start with regular review of complaints data. Who is complaining about what, and when? Are there patterns? Are we resolving complaints; if so, how? Do the complaints data tell us a different story to the story told by “conventional” performance data?

With that insight, managing interactions with individual complainants will be easier. It will, in particular, be easier to dig into where that individual complaint might relate to a systemic issue – a bigger problem.

We do recommend, in light of what we now know of the importance of scrutiny keeping its ear to the ground on the views and experiences of local people, that (as part of their wider reflections on scrutiny) councils put their minds to thinking about how they will deal with these issues where they arise, and how scrutiny’s potential role in better understanding (and taking a role in resolving) local issues might be publicised and promoted.

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.