March 4, 2022

Ombudsman to lead complaints change programme

A plan to transform how public bodies handle complaints has been launched today by the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO).

The plan, which follows an extensive consultation exercise, aims for all public bodies to follow a similar approach, so that regardless of whether the complaint is about a school, a hospital, or a government department, there is greater consistency across the public sector.

Launching the plans, Ombudsman Margaret Kelly said,
“Today is an important day. It marks the end of a long period of research, consultation and planning, and the start of an exciting journey which we believe has the potential to transform complaints handling in the public sector.”

The announcement comes on the back of an independent report published by the Department of Health earlier this week which recommended NIPSO lead a complaints change programme in the health and social care sector. It also follows a vote by the Northern Ireland Assembly in January to approve NIPSO’s Statement of Principles regarding complaints handling for public sector bodies.

“We know that making a complaint can sometimes be stressful and confusing”, said Ms Kelly.
That is why we want public bodies to deal with complaints quickly and efficiently.

Specifically, we believe they should respond to straightforward complaints within five working days. If it is found that something has gone wrong, the public body should seek to put things right and a complainant should be given an explanation and an apology.

However, we know that not all complaints will be dealt with within five days. More complex complaints may therefore progress to a second investigation stage. This stage should take the public body no more than 20 working days to complete, after which they should tell the complainant clearly the findings of the investigation and what further action they will be taking.

As well as setting timescales for complaints handling, NIPSO aims to change the culture in organisations so that complaints are valued. This will involve working with senior leaders to help them understand why complaints matter, showing that by acting as an early warning system complaints should be welcomed rather than feared.

NIPSO are developing training programmes to support the change in approach, including advice on how complaints should be investigated, and how to improve communication. They will also explain how organisations should resolve complaints early in the complaints procedure whilst learning and improving from them.

The work will initially focus on five key public sectors as part of a rolling change programme including:
– Education
– Health and Social Care
– Housing
– Central Government
– Local Government

Local government has been selected as the first sector NIPSO will work with to develop a model complaints handling procedure. This will be accompanied by detailed scoping work with the Health and Social Care sector.

“As an organisation, NIPSO is committed to improving public services”, said Ms Kelly. “Better complaints handling will make things easier for the public, and help public bodies learn lessons from mistakes. We are looking forward to working with all public bodies to introduce these changes.”