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Interview: Cutting capacity to deal with complaints a 'false economy'

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The new Local Government Ombudsman has vowed to share more data in a bid to help councils improve services at a time of ongoing funding pressures and rising complaints about adult social care and children’s services.

Michael King, who has this month taken on the role after most recently serving as the organisation’s chief executive, has also called on councils to maintain sufficient capacity to deal with complaints as they are a vital “early warning” of potential system failure.

In an interview with LGC Mr King said the overall volume of complaints to the ombudsman had remained “remarkably stable” despite ongoing local government funding cuts. However, the proportion of complaints relating to adult and children’s services had now risen significantly to about a third of all cases, he said.

“We have witnessed a direct effect as a result of pressures on local government resources,” said Mr King. “Complaints about adult social care have risen every year for the five years and in some areas we have seen double digit increases.

“Complaints tend to be now more complex and intractable and require significant investigation. The issue of resources is present in a great number of complaints we look at.”

Mr King said there was a prevalence of social care complaints about issues such as care planning and residential care.

Councils should not make cuts to complaints handling capacity because actually that is a very small investment for a big return

In 2015-16 the ombudsman received a total of 2,969 complaints about adult social care, a 6% increase on the previous year.

There was a 21% increase in complaints about care arranged privately with independent providers. These make up 13% of the social care cases handled by the ombudsman.

Mr King said more than half of all complaints were upheld for the first time last year (51%), rising to 65% for complaints about adult social care.

The ombudsman received 3,438 complaints about education and children’s services, with 53% upheld.

There were 903 cases relating to child protection, of which 68% of complaints were upheld.

Mr King said it was his priority to publish more detailed information gathered during investigations and when tracking councils’ responses to recommendations.

He said this would increase transparency for the public and provide a useful tool for councils facing ongoing budgetary pressures.

Mr King said: “We sit on a huge amount of data about local authority social care services and have an insight into how local authorities manage those services.

“That is very much a people-centred insight into the way those services are working.

”We do some good work to share that data and intelligence for public bodies to help improve and help them avoid making the same mistakes but I think there is more we can do.”

Mr King said there were significant variations across the country in the level of complaints received.

He put this largely down to 55% of councils cutting their capacity to deal with complaints in recent years, but insisted this was counter-productive when trying to improve efficiency.

Mr King said: “We think it is a false economy. Being able to deal with complaints allows you to get upstream of complaints and gives you an early warning on things going wrong while giving you further intelligence on how your services are running.

“[Councils should not] make cuts to complaints handling capacity because actually that is a very small investment for a big return.

“I want to see all local authorities take complaints seriously as a lever for service improvement.”

The ombudsman itself has faced a 40% reduction in funding since 2008, but Mr King says the organisation is “stable and resilient”.

He said he has worked with the Cabinet Office on proposals to merge the LGO with the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, with a draft bill published last month.

Mr King said the current system is too fragmented and the proposed legislation would improve the service to the public.

He added: “[The bill] removes some of the confusion and ambiguities around the current system. In reality people’s complaints don’t come in these neat silos.

“Sometimes complaints can relate to seven or eight different bodies.

“It is important that [the new body] is not some Westminster/Whitehall body that is not responsive to service delivery in local government – it must truly reflect the distinctive character of local service delivery.”

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