Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Local government ombudsman: here's how we spin

On the 30th October 2012 Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman and chair of the Commission for Local Administration in England issued the following press release. My comments in blue italics.
Local government ombudsman: here's how we'll change 
It's just a pity they had to wait for a select committee to produce a damning report before they realised what everyone else had known for years. The Local Government Ombudsman was not fit for purpose and hadn't been for over 20 years.
In my response to the communities and local government select committee, I acknowledged the need for the local government ombudsman (LGO) to open itself up to greater scrutiny; from our peers, from our partners, from the public and from parliament.
Ironic that they have spent the last 20 years doing exactly the opposite and only decide to open themselves up after the panning they received from the select committee. Rather goes to prove that a Local Government Ombudsman's judgement isn't that good after all.
We do so at a time of radical change, when we need to ensure the quality of our service and maintain public trust and confidence in that service. It is right that we are held properly accountable for implementing our plans.
How an earth can they 'maintain' public trust and confidence when it never existed in the first place? They need to create public trust first and whilst they continue to use linguistic gymnastics to evade the issues they won't get very far. Note the last sentence of the previous paragraph. It is right that we are held properly accountable for implementing our plans. Hang on a moment, complainants want you properly accountable, period. Not just accountable for implementing your plans.
Over the next few months I will be reflecting on the way we do things so that we understand how to work with authorities and residents to fulfil our brief of effective and proportionate dispute resolution. The ombudsman will be carrying out a number of reviews of how we work, including how we handle evidence and the speed of our investigations. I will be looking again at how we can best measure customer satisfaction and also reviewing all our public information.
Waiting for a kick up the backside before reflecting on the way they do things is a sad indictment of any manager let alone a Local Government Ombudsman. When they undertake their review into the way they handle evidence I hope they decide to stop burying evidence supplied by the complainant because it contradicts what the council have told them. 

As far as speeding up investigations is concerned they could make a start by spending less time trying to bury complaints, less time trying to find 'an out' for the authority concerned and more time on doing the job they are supposed to do. 

As far as customer satisfaction is concerned all they need to do is to be open, honest and make sure their decisions are sound and not, as is their usual modus operandi, based on evidence specially selected to support their decision. They need to start reaching decisions based on all the evidence not ignoring some of it because it contradicts their decision.
I will invite colleagues from other ombudsman schemes across the UK to share their expertise and challenge us as peers, and commission an external evaluation of our work to ensure our independence, fairness, effectiveness, openness, transparency and accountability.
I seriously doubt, having spent years creating an organisation that isn't truly independent, fair, open, transparent or accountable, they will be able to change the culture of the organisation with the current staff. Especially since the most Ombudsmen, Deputy Ombudsmen, Assistant Ombudsmen and Instigators are ex council and are responsible for creating and maintaining the system recently criticised by the select committee.
Things are already beginning to change at the LGO. We have already committed to publishing all our decisions on our website – the first public sector ombudsman to do so. Not only will this mean our work is more transparent, but it will also provide information to the public and their representatives about the quality of public administration and service delivery in their area.
Things are already beginning to change at the LGO?  They could hardly stay the same, their reputation was at an all time low and the government were at long last starting to take notice.

It's not just the decisions that are important but the evidence the decision is based on. The reason why the Local Government Ombudsman is the only public sector ombudsman to be forced to publish all their decisions is because they are demonstrably the worst public sector ombudsman and simply can't be trusted to reach sound decisions based on all the available evidence. They have a track record of  ringing up the council and reaching a decision based on the unsubstantiated statements of the council  rather than the evidence presented by the complainant.

It is interesting to note that they will provide information about the quality of administration and service delivery because they have failed to do so in the past
We have undertaken a staff survey early because we recognise the importance of their contribution in making this change; we must make sure that our team is engaged in this process. This survey is only the first step in a culture change for the organisation.
I doubt staff will be happy having to be transparent with their decisions. In the past the only way they could bolster their flawed decisions was to manipulate the evidence.  
Our first overhaul of the service is to introduce a new intake and assessment process, designed to assess complaints for investigation more quickly. We are starting in our London office and are asking local authorities to work with us to speed up this process.
We will learn from this first stage before rolling it out across the organisation in April next year.
I wonder why they have just decided to introduce a system to speed things up. Ah! just remembered they were panned by a select committee otherwise they would have continued to run an unfit for purpose system of administrative justice, as they have been doing for over 20 years, when they first started to recruit ex council staff..
I hope that the public will soon start to see the benefit of all this activity and feel reassured that the LGO is delivering public value as well as value for money.
For one I would have preferred it if the select committee had recommend that the government sack the LGO and all their staff and introduce a new system of administrative justice. Whilst there is no doubt the select committee has given them a second chance I personally don't think they are capable of change, for the better at least. 

Unfortunately complainants will all have to suffer the death throes of the unfit for purpose system for another couple of years until the select committee decide once and for all the Local Government Ombudsmen are incapable of running a fit for purpose system of administrative justice.

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