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Unify and simplify complaints process for all public sector services, demand MPs

Appoint dedicated minister and create single contact point to ward off another Mid-Staffs

Caroline White

Monday, 14 April 2014

There should be a single point of contact to make complaints about any government department or agency, to make it easier to sound the alarm about poor quality public services and stave off further disasters like Mid-Staffs, concludes a panel of MPs in a new report* published today.

Opportunities to offer sufficient redress, improve services, and boost public confidence are missed when complaints are not taken seriously, says the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee.

The Mid-Staffs scandal bears witness to the damage wrought by a culture of denial and failure of leadership to value complaints, says the report.

“This shaming case has lessons for the NHS, Whitehall and for public services as a whole. How complaints are handled determines the quality of the relationship between consumers and public services,” says the report.

“The best performing organisations welcome complaints as a way of engaging consumers. 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,” it adds.

But all too often the system for making complaints is far too complicated and confusing, says the report, with an array of euphemisms, such as “appeal,” “review,” or “feedback,” used to describe it.

“A complaint is a complaint... nobody should be shy of the term ‘complaint’... Other euphemistic terms for ‘complaint’ should be banned,” says the report.

The Committee recommends that the government should appoint a minister for government policy on complaints handling to provide leadership from the top and ensure that the Cabinet Office review of complaints handling changes attitudes and behaviour at all levels in respect of complaints handling.

Ministers should themselves investigate complaints MPs raise with them, rather than delegate them—a practice which contributed to ministers’ blindness about Mid- Staffs, says the report.

And it calls for a “single point of contact for citizens to make complaints about government departments or agencies”, which provides “meaningful human support at the end of a telephone for those who need it.”

Bernard Jenkin MP, who chairs the Committee, commented: "There needs to be a revolution in the way public services are run, and how the public perceives government. As things are, most people believe there is no point in complaining.”

He added: “The shocking collapse of care at Mid-Staffs hospital should be a warning to the whole public sector that too many managers in public services are in denial about what their customers and their staff think about them. The Francis report gave no comfort that the culture of denial does not exist across most of the NHS.”

There were “encouraging signs of increased attention to good complaints handling,” he continued, but the government needed to lead by example, he suggested. 

"Unless and until we have a culture of leadership in public services that listens to, values and responds to complaints, from service users and staff, there will always be the potential for tragedies like Mid-Staffs, and opportunities to improve services and public confidence will be missed again and again," he said.

* House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC). More complaints please! Twelfth Report of Session 2013–14. April 2014.

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