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UK: Put the Flaws on Show – Dr Martin's Remedy
Source: http://www.publicservice.co.uk/feature_story.asp?id=21856
Source Date: Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Focus: Electronic and Mobile Government
Country: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Created: Dec 27, 2012

Caught between the conflicting pressures of government cuts and increasing public demand for dependable public services, lead Local Government Ombudsman Dr Jane Martin tells Iain Robinson why she believes greater transparency is essential to help redesign services, hold providers to account and silence her critics in Westminster

Meeting an increasing workload with 25 per cent less staff was never going to be an easy feat for the office of the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO), but its recent public mauling by MPs over procedural delays in handling complaints has made the task of restructuring doubly difficult.

The damning criticism by the Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee represented the most serious attack on the organisation's integrity and authority since calls for the office's abolition in 1995.

However, Dr Jane Martin, the lead LGO and chairwoman of the Commission for Local Administration in England, insists that the select committee merely highlighted the difficulties associated with undertaking major transitions in large organisations.

She says: "The select committee didn't tell us anything that we weren't really aware of. We had a transformation plan ready and we were waiting for a decision from our sponsor department to move on that. If anything, the report reinforces the need for us to do what we say we are going to do.

"We are cutting our budget by 27 per cent during this comprehensive spending review period. We will be a much leaner operation, but coming onto one site (in Coventry) will be a step towards ensuring the consistency and quality of service that we want."

However, the restructuring is also taking place against a backdrop of intense public sector reform, the proliferation of service providers in areas such as adult social care and local government retrenchment in response to budget cuts.

The ombudsman's remit is also in a state of flux. The LGO has relinquished responsibility for complaints about internal school management in favour of dealing with more than 13,000 providers of adult social care services. And Martin believes that the welfare reforms now being implemented will further complicate her task.

She says: "We have always had to deal with the ebb and flow of different categories of complaint, and this is no different. We simply have to manage the changes.

"The landscape is ever-changing, but I would hope that our reputation and the quality of our work bears out our belief that we have remained relevant in particularly challenging circumstances."

Martin's solution is to adopt a new approach, combining the responsive complaint-handling role with a more proactive strategy to publicise important lessons to be learned from complaints and highlight potential policy and service design flaws.

She says: "Part of our transformation plan is to refocus the organisation and to be even better at our public value work and share more publicly the insights that we gain from complaints. We want to draw out more effectively where we think there are weaknesses in the system and where we would like to make suggestions for service improvements.

"We plan early next year to publish details, anonymously, of all of our complaints on our website. It is quite an undertaking, but our aim is to share everything.

"We see ourselves as part of the regulatory landscape, and we hope that this will be very useful to people within the context of open public services policy, as people are making choices about service provision. The important thing for us is to remain relevant."

Martin believes transparency can have a significant impact on many of the problems that generate complaints, but concedes that tougher powers of enforcement may also be required to deal with the increasingly blurred lines between public and private sector provision.

She says: "It has been widely mooted that we might have binding decisions and be able to enforce the recommendations we make. We have always resisted that on the basis that the compliance rate is about 99 per cent, and that is testament to the way we can achieve remedies which are acceptable to both sides.

"But with adult social care providers we are working in a commercial landscape. I don't think we have really been tested too much on the required compliance from providers in that sector, and that may well come."

She adds: "The current regulatory climate is such that there is no appetite for an overbearing regulatory system in the areas in which we operate. But at the same time the public expects and deserves assurance on the quality of services, and that is a bit of a conundrum for us.

"It points to an increasingly important role for the ombudsman, because if we are moving to a regulatory system whereby those who use the service will be relied upon to demand improved services, then looking to complaints will really start to put some flesh on the bones and help us to understand where things have gone wrong and how they can be put right."
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