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Transforming public services: complaints as a strategic issue

Source: Public Sector Executive Dec/Jan 2015

Chris Gill, a lecturer in administrative justice at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, is programme leader for the MSc Dispute Resolution and leads on the provision of short training courses for public service complaint handlers. He argues that better complaints handling in the public sector has the potential to improve services – but the current picture is too often one of failure to learn.

Complaints are costly. Recent research by the London School of Economics estimates that the cost of dealing with complaints in central government runs to a staggering £1.5bn a year. The National Audit Office estimates the annual cost of complaint handling in the NHS at £89m and calculates that individual complaints about social care cost between £570 and £1,970 per case. These figures may surprise us, but make sense when we learn that, across the public sector, a workforce of over 10,000 staff are directly involved in the business of complaint handling.

If the cost of complaint handling is little known, so too are its potential benefits. Indeed, there remains a strong tendency for organisations to perceive their complaints management functions purely as a cost rather than as a function that can deliver value for the business. That public services leaders are not currently seeking a return on the annual £1.5bn investment in complaint handling is a cause for some concern.

But what is the evidence in relation to the benefits and value of complaint handling?

The transformational value of properly-handled complaints

Research on complaint handling in the private sector is clear: good complaints management has a direct effect on the bottom line. A well-handled complaint engenders customer retention and allows businesses to improve their offer to future customers. While public services cannot calculate value in quite the same way, the potential for complaints to deliver major improvements to service delivery is increasingly well-established. Research by innovation charity Nesta (formerly the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts), for example, provides a comprehensive picture of the transformational value of complaints that are handled properly and used as a source of learning.

Earlier this year, the Public Administration Select Committee’s enquiry into public services complaint handling considered a wide range of evidence about the need for change. It highlighted the key role of leadership in ensuring that warm words about the benefits of learning from complaints resulted in concrete changes for service users on the ground. A further key finding of the enquiry was to highlight the importance of fully integrating complaints management with service provision and strategic planning processes.

The Committee concluded: “Government must ensure that [the] leadership of public services values complaints as critical for improving, and learning about, their service… Valuing complaints and supporting people who feel the need to complain should be at the heart of the values which drive public services. The importance of leadership cannot be overstated.”

Public services near the bottom of the league table

The evidence is clear: when truly valued, complaints are catalysts for transformative change. This includes both the transformation of services, with consumer knowledge and feedback integral to service renewal, as well as the transformation of service users’ perceptions of public services. And we must remember that public services have some way to go in ensuring that the good work they do is valued by citizens. The latest results of the UK Customer Satisfaction Index show public services at the bottom of the league table, only underperformed by the utilities sector.

There is no room for complacency in the drive to ensure that good intentions result in better outcomes for users.

The emerging consensus is that continued failure to deliver added value from the public services’ investment in complaints is unacceptable. So, what can be done? The problem is a complex one and one of the reasons why progress in learning from complaints has been slow is the tendency to consider complaints in a silo, detached from mainstream service provision. This is key in explaining the failure of public services to make the most of the learning from complaints. Without public services’ complaint management functions being fully integrated into ongoing service provision, strategic planning, and commissioning processes, change will never be more than piecemeal and reactive. The challenge for public service leaders is to see complaints for what they really are: opportunities for strategic growth and renewal.

Areas for change

The Centre for Public Scrutiny has recently issued a report arguing for complaints to be seen in this light, as a matter of public services governance and as a key consideration for the future development of services. The report proposes three areas in which organisations need to change:

  • Culture: this involves ensuring the presence of an open, transparent and accountable culture that values complaints. Key questions for managers include assessing whether complaint handling is about bureaucratic process or whether it is about learning and improvement.
  • Operations: this involves reviewing how complaints and feedback are received and how the data arising from complaints is used once it is collected. Key questions for managers include evaluating the quality of complaint handling, as well as making connections between individual service failures and the need for wider change.
  • Strategy: this involves ensuring that complaints are used as part of the business planning and commissioning cycle. Key questions for managers include reviewing whether complaints form part of their strategic planning and whether they are a feature of contracts with commissioned providers.

These recommendations may seem straightforward, but one only has to look at recent examples such as the Mid-Staffs Hospital and Rotherham Children’s Services scandals to see that complaints are not always acted upon. While these are extreme and unrepresentative examples, the failure of complaint processes to avoid catastrophic service failures, let alone improve day-to-day provision, provides a cautionary reminder of the gulf between aspiration and reality in the world of public services complaint management.

Complaint handling in a world of new delivery models

Finally, as public services move ever more towards a commissioner model of service delivery, the role of public bodies in the governance of complaints will continue to increase in importance.

The value of complaints as bellwethers for problems and issues with commissioned services will also increase, with complaints becoming perhaps the central way in which feedback and service quality data will be obtained from outsourced services from the private and not-for-profit sector.

There was a time when organisations sought to reduce the number of complaints they received, as a sign that their customers were content.

Times have changed and the new challenge for public service leaders is to encourage more citizens to complain.

Only then can leaders make the most of the strategic potential of complaints and harness the transformational effects of consumer feedback.

To quote the title of the Public Administration Select Committee report, ‘More Complaints Please!’

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