June 10, 2021

Ombudsman proposes new complaints handling standards for public bodies in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman, Margaret Kelly, has today called for a culture change in the way public bodies in Northern Ireland deal with complaints from members of the public. 

Her comments came as a new survey showed two thirds of people who were dissatisfied with the level of service from a public body said they would not complain as they thought it would make no difference or be too trivial.

Launching a consultation on the Ombudsman’s proposals to create a common set of complaint handling standards for the whole of the public sector, Ms Kelly said that the high number of people reluctant to make a complaint represented a missed opportunity for public bodies to hear about possible service failures and to learn where things could be improved.

“Despite coming across many examples of good practice, our experience is that when people do complain, too often their concerns are not taken seriously enough. Rather than being seen as unwelcome distractions, complaints should be treated as a source of user feedback, providing organisations with an excellent opportunity to question how they deliver services.

Our aim is to change the complaints handling culture within the public sector so that it is easier for people to make a complaint, and so that they know what level of service to expect when they do. This is also about ensuring public bodies have the best procedures in place to learn from mistakes and make sure they do not re-occur”, said Ms Kelly.

Under the current system public bodies set their own procedures for dealing with complaints, responding across a number of different stages, often with wide variation in timescales. The Ombudsman’s plans would mean instead that schools, local councils, government departments, GP practices, hospitals and other publicly funded bodies would all be expected to deal with complaints in broadly similar ways.

This greater consistency is set out in a set of complaints handling principles and practices, including proposals that public bodies should deal with complaints in no more than two stages, with a first response within 5 days of receiving the complaint and within 20 days if forwarded for further investigation.

The Ombudsman’s consultation, which was launched today, was released along with a research report into the complaints handling landscape in Northern Ireland.

The research found:

– Evidence the general public can often be reluctant to make a complaint

– Some people making a complaint can feel vulnerable and fear repercussions

for their actions.

– The experience of the complaints process can be characterised by uncertainty, frustration and stress.

The consultation runs until the start of September, and responses are being sought from providers of public services, members of the public, consumer and advocacy groups, and others.

Following the consultation the Ombudsman will review the responses and consider any changes that might need to be made to the proposals. They will then be presented to the Northern Ireland Assembly for final approval, before work will begin with public bodies to implement the new procedures.