Departments equipped with standards for handling service-user complaints

New guidelines set out procedures that should be adopted

Credit: Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay

Departments and public bodies have begun implementing the first ever government-wide standards for how complaints from service users are handled.

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman worked with government departments and other public bodies to create the standards after research revealed more than two-thirds of people did not think their complaint regarding public services would be listened to.

Until now, there have been no common standards among departments and no clear indication of what constitutes good practice.

The public-services watchdog said the standards will aim to help public bodies provide a quicker, simpler, fairer and more thorough service “where complaints are embraced and welcomed as opportunities to learn”. 

“Mistakes happen, but how they’re handled can avoid them being repeated and make a big difference to those affected. It’s no exaggeration to say that in some circumstances this could be life changing,” PHSO ombudsman Rob Behrens said.

Talking to PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, Behrens pointed to examples including the Foreign Office not properly handling a rape allegation and a Department of Work and Pensions error that severely cut the benefits of 118,000 people with disabilities and health problems.

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“All of that could have been addressed more effectively if they had adopted complaints,” he said.

Behrens has previously warned that there is a growing trend of government departments seeing complaints from service users as a nuisance.

The Cabinet Office, Department for Transport, HM Revenue and Customs, and the Food Standards Agency have already adopted the standards, having worked with the PHSO on developing them for two years.

These “trailblazer” organisations have “seriously taken the standards on board and are beginning to understand the benefits of using it”, Behrens said. They will continue to work with the ombudsman to improve good practice across government, he added.

The PHSO has no legislative powers to enforce complaints standards, unlike in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, although Behrens has repeatedly called for the government to give the ombudsman these powers.

But he said he is confident public bodies will embrace the standards given government’s key role in creating them, rather than being “imposed by the ombudsman in a patronising way”.

“There is real enthusiasm for complaints standards which aren’t mandatory, but which are seen to be useful and effective in making the frontline more effective in handling complaints,” he said.


Sam Trendall

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