The Scottish public sector complaints handling landscape has been subject to significant review in recent years. As a result, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament agreed a broad programme of change to help drive improvements in public service complaints handling. This agreement lead to new roles and responsibilities for the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO), as well as impacting on how public bodies respond to complaints.
The Crerar Report (2007) identified complaints handling as an activity that played an important role in the scrutiny of public services, but also highlighted the need for improvement to the present arrangements in Scotland. A key finding was that public sector complaints handling processes are not fit–for-purpose, are not always accessible or easy to use, and are often complex and variable in their content.
The Report made a number of recommendations aimed at developing a standardised, simplified complaints handling system, to be introduced and overseen by the SPSO.
The clear aims were to:
- introduce improvements for the consumer, with a less complex and more easily accessed system and complaints dealt with quicker and more locally;
- improve consistency and coordination across sectors, removing potential for duplication and overlap;
- centralise the complaints handling system design drawing expertise from various sectors; and
- allow the lessons learned from complaints to be applied more easily across all public services.
Fit-for-Purpose Complaints System Action Group (FCSAG)
Following the Crerar Review, the Scottish Government established a Fit-for-Purpose Complaints System Action Group. This group was asked to develop proposals for simplifying public service complaints handling processes and streamlining the complaints handling landscape. Membership was drawn from consumer representatives, service providers and complaints handling organisations, and policy makers. The group was led by Douglas Sinclair from the Scottish Consumer Council.
FCSAG made a number of recommendations. Many of these proposed new roles or responsibilities for the SPSO, including:
- that the SPSO help simplify and improve complaints handling by working with public bodies to develop standard complaints handling procedures;
- that the number of stand-alone complaints handling bodies should be reduced, and that responsibility for some complaints should be transferred to the SPSO, including prisons and water;
- that the SPSO should help public bodies develop a consistent way to capture their performance in complaints handling, including assessment of the costs of providing professional complaints handling services;
- that the SPSO co-ordinate a range of activity to help public bodies adopt best practice in complaint handling through supporting training for complaints handlers, assisting in the development of a complaints handling network, and issuing guidance.
- that the SPSO help to ensure that public service bodies use complaints to improve services on the basis of learning the lessons.
Other recommendations of the group included:
- establishing a signposting service, with a single point of contact, to provide guidance and general advice to consumers on complaining;
- that public service bodies provide appropriate authority to resolve complaints to front line staff and complaints handlers;
- that public service bodies review the training needs of front line employees and complaints handlers to ensure they have the skill and confidence to use the authority provided to them;
- that all public service organisations review and enhance the status of complaint handlers.
Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010
The Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 (‘the PSR Act’) was passed by the Scottish Parliament to give effect to some of the recommendations of the Sinclair Report.
This legislation gave the SPSO new responsibilities and powers in relation to complaints handling, specifically, it gave the SPSO a new role to oversee the development of standardised model complaints handling procedures for each sector (local authority, housing, NHS, further and higher education etc) and to promote and monitor best practice in complaints handling.
These new duties are being undertaken by the Complaints Standards Authority (CSA) within the SPSO.