New guidelines ask departments to actively encourage service-user feedback

Government standards intend to foster a culture of ‘welcoming complaints in a positive way’

Credit: Mohamed Hassan/PxHere 

Whitehall departments should encourage citizens to provide feedback on their experiences with government services, according to proposed standards for the way public bodies handle complaints 

The draft central Government Complaint Standards put forward by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman are intended to drive a culture change that would see government entities “welcoming complaints in a positive way” and recognising them as valuable insight for the organisation.

As part of which, departments should “regularly promote their wish to hear from their service users and show how they are using learning from all feedback – including complaints – to improve services”, the ombudsman recommended.

‘Welcoming complaints’ is one of four key tenets for government organisations set out in the standards, alongside: promoting a learning culture; being thorough and fair; and giving fair and accountable responses.

The proposals set out expected behaviours of senior leaders and their staff – and underscore a need for cross-departmental collaboration, as well as a need to actively encourage service-user feedback.

“The standards will guide organisations of all sizes so they can put in place the right structures, reports and systems to capture and examine learning,” the document said. “This will help them gain true insight into their service users’ experience.”

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The proposals also acknowledge the work many government organisations have already undertaken to strengthen their complaints processes.

The watchdog said the new standards, which are detailed in a 16-page document that is open to consultation until the end of May, seek to encourage the provision of “fair and accountable” responses that provide “open and honest answers” to the public as soon as possible.

It added that the new regime wants to promote a “learning culture” among departments and arm’s-length-bodies “by supporting organisations to see complaints as opportunities to improve services” in a way that is aligned with the government’s Modern Civil Service ambitions.

Research commissioned by the ombudsman found that more than two-thirds of people did not think organisations would listen to a complaint about public services, and that fewer than 20% thought it would make a difference.

The watchdog said one-third of respondents feared that making a complaint to a government organisation may affect how they were treated by that organisation in the future.

Ombudsman Rob Behrens said the results painted a “stark picture” of the need for change and that the new standards had been developed in collaboration with departmental staff – including some from the Cabinet Office and the Department for Work and Pensions, as well as advocacy groups.

“Central government organisations regularly provide high-quality, essential public services. But when things go wrong, people must feel empowered to speak up, knowing their complaint will be treated seriously and acted on,” he said. “Good complaint-handling can mean the difference between better services and mistakes being needlessly repeated. As I have seen time and again, learning lessons from complaints can prevent serious harm and even lives being lost. This is why organisations must embed a learning and improvement culture that places complaints at the heart of service improvements. The standards will support this approach.”

The standards for government department follow the production of a similar framework for the NHS, which is being rolled out across the health service.

The ombudsman said those standards had been welcomed by the health sector as much-needed guidelines to provide a “unified approach” that would benefit complaint staff and complainants alike.


Sam Trendall

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