Interviews

06.08.18

Michael King: Time for Ombudsman reform

Source: PSE Aug/Sept 2018

Michael King first joined the Local Government Ombudsman service back in 2004 as deputy ombudsman. At the start of 2017, he was appointed as the local government and social care ombudsman (LGSCO). Here, he talks to PSE’s Daniel Broadley to discuss ombudsman reform and the commitments set out in the LGO’s latest corporate strategy.

Right before Michael King was appointed to his current role, legislation had been drafted and shelved for the merging of the LGSCO with the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO). Now, the legislation has been brought back into the limelight after being debated in Parliament.

King revealed he and his organisation have supported ombudsman reform for years. Not only that, but there are working models, both abroad and within the UK, that England could base its reform on.

“I’ve been involved in the organisation for 14 years and certainly, in that time, the conversation about the need for a single ombudsman for the people of England has been ongoing. If you look at Northern Ireland (NI), Scotland and Wales, they all have a single, joined-up public service ombudsman that deals with all of the issues which are currently spread across my organisation, the PHSO, and the housing ombudsman,” he explained.

“We think that the people of England should have the same rights of access to a single system of joined-up administrative justice in the same way the people of Scotland, NI and Wales have, so we wholeheartedly support reform.”

He noted that there is often a lot of confusion for members of the public when looking to make a complaint and around who to turn to. Bringing the complaints handling service under one single public service ombudsman would not only simplify the process, but make it more transparent and accountable.

NI, King said, has the most modern and advanced ombudsman legislation, and we should be looking to them as a working model.

“It’s more modern in a number of ways, one being the scope of what it covers compared to England. There’s areas of public concern in England that you can’t turn to any ombudsman for – complaints about schools, for example,” the LGSCO continued.

“We had a pilot jurisdiction some years ago where we looked at complaints from schools and it was hugely successful, but unfortunately it wasn’t implemented. So there’s a broader area of complaints that people should be able to complain about which could be included in a modern ombudsman service.”

The NI ombudsman also has some powers that England doesn’t, such as ‘own initiative investigations.’ This gives the ombudsman the power to look at incidents where people are perhaps afraid of making a complaint (such as people in care homes) or where people don’t have a voice (such as immigration detention centres). Essentially, where there are suspected issues with public service delivery, this power allows the ombudsman to conduct an inquiry without there necessarily being lots of complaints.

King described this as a “modern and enlightened” way of equipping the ombudsman service, noting that Scandinavia – where ombudsman services originated over 200 years ago – and Commonwealth countries also have solid working models that England could follow.

Interestingly, the outcomes of a potential reformed ombudsman service seem to reflect the values of the LGSCO’s corporate strategy – in which ease of use, accountability, and using lessons learnt from complaints to drive improvement are all prevalent.

“We aren’t going to hang around and wait for legislation,” King argued. “A lot of those principles in our strategy are what we’d be looking for in ombudsman reform; we’re trying to do as much as we can in our current remit.

“For example, we’re trying to use modern technology to make our service as accessible as possible. In the next couple of years we’re hoping you’ll be able to go on our website to directly upload the documents that you need considering in your complaint and track where you’re up to, just as you would in some commercial transaction.

“People sometimes think we’re just a complaints-handling body. It’s not that, it has two roles: to deal with individuals and justice, and to try and use the learning from complaints to drive improvement in public services and inform public policy debate – and, in some cases, give a voice to the voiceless.”

One thing King was also keen on was sharing the data and intelligence that the LGSCO acquires from complaints with the public, bodies from other jurisdictions, and Parliament in order to improve public services.

Measuring success 

Stemming from his comments about the LGSCO being more than just a complaints handling body, King also rejected the “simplistic” model of measuring success by the volume of complaints – something he says can actually be reflective of more open, transparent and accountable organisations.

The real measure of success, he claimed, is how well things are put right. But how can this be measured and documented?

King revealed that the LGSCO is planning on publishing an interactive geographical map where you can see local authority areas and how many complaints it has received compared to its neighbours, view what commitments have been adopted, and how well they have complied with LGSCO recommendations.

As part of this culture change, the LGSCO has been feeding back good practice by publishing focus reports, which put together thematic learning from different sectors to feed back to local government; and writing annual letters to every local authority, which have traditionally either been neutral or critical, but which last year, for the first time, have featured positive feedback that hands out praise where good changes had been implemented. 

“We’re here for justice, not just to attack local authorities,” King said.

On the increasing rate of council mergers (more on p24), outsourcing and sharing of services, and general reorganisation of local authorities, King remained politically impartial, but noted that when local authorities are restructured, “it has an effect on people’s ability to engage with them and complain about them.”

He continued: “Sometimes, restructuring has been done very well; in other cases we’ve seen it lead to problems. For example, we’ve seen authorities lose entire records on planning.

“The key thing is to make sure basic public administration isn’t thrown out the window: they are paramount during times of significant change. You can subcontract your services, but you can’t subcontract your responsibility.”

The drive and reasoning for ombudsman reform is there, the principles of which are already being implemented. We even have proven models of which we can copy – it appears that all that’s needed now is action from central government.

 

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