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MPs take Government bodies to task over poor complaints handling

Government as a whole cannot be said to be complying with best practice in complaints handling or adapting to the needs and expectations of today’s citizen, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) has said.

In a report, More complaints please!, the PASC acknowledged though that in some parts of public services, there were "encouraging signs" of increased attention to good complaints handling.

The committee said that success depended on the right leadership. “Government must ensure that leadership of public services values complaints as critical for improving, and learning about, their service.”

The MPs added that they welcomed the Minister for Government Policy’s review of complaints handling in Government.

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The PASC also recommended that:

  • There should be a minister for government policy on complaints handling;
  • The primary objective of the Cabinet Office review of complaints handling in Government should be to change attitudes and behaviour in public administration at all levels in respect of complaints handling;
  • In respect of complaints from MPs handled by ministers, replies must be “accurate, clear and helpful”. Confidential information should not be shared with third parties, and responsibility for responding cannot be delegated (“which contributed to the blindness about Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust”;
  • The Government should create a single point of contact for citizens to make complaints about government departments and agencies; and
  • The Government should provide leadership to those responsible for various parts of administrative justice, "to ensure that there is a clear and consistent approach to sharing, learning and best practice".

“Achieving change of this nature is a difficult but vital challenge, and one that must be addressed now if we are to avoid the ‘toxic cocktail’* poisoning efforts to deliver excellent public services,” the report said.

The PASC inquiry was prompted by the “shocking collapse of care” at Mid Staffordshire Hospital, which the MPs said had lessons for the NHS, Whitehall and for public services as a whole when it comes to complaints handling.

The MPs said how complaints were handled determined the quality of the relationship between consumers and public services.

“The best performing organisations welcome complaints as a way of engaging consumers,” they said. “A failure to recognise the importance of complaints leads to insufficient redress for the individual, limits the impact that complaints have in improving services, and alienates the public."

Local Government Ombudsman Dr Jane Martin welcomed the attention the committee’s inquiry placed on improving the culture of complaint handling within public services.

She said: "In my evidence to the committee I highlighted that complaints should be seen as a valuable opportunity to get direct feedback from the service user and used to drive improvements.

"We welcome and support any changes that will ensure that the complaints system delivers a better service for the public, better value for money and better local and parliamentary accountability."

Julie Mellor, Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, said: “We agree with the Public Administration Select Committee’s findings that learning from complaints needs to be embedded into the culture of government departments and agencies.

“Today’s select committee findings present an opportunity for organisations to deal more effectively with complaints and develop ways to learn from those mistakes. Good complaint handling has to start from the top, and strong leaders will recognise the valuable opportunities complaints provide to really improve the service they are delivering and increase customer satisfaction.”

Mellor added that the PHSO would be carrying out research into how departmental boards were engaging with complaints and using them to learn, improve and innovate.

* The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman had previously described complaints about the NHS, and the handling of those complaints as a “toxic cocktail”, a combination of a reluctance on the part of citizens “to express their concerns or complaints”, and a defensiveness on the part of services “to hear and address concerns”.

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