The local government ombudsman has told LGC that senior officers repeatedly questioned his criticism of their work and lacked the maturity to deal with it appropriately.
Ombudsman Michael King “unusually” provided unprompted evidence to the best value inspection report. In an exclusive interview, Mr King said there was a need for council leaders and senior officers to learn lessons from Northamptonshire’s “serious misunderstanding” of the complaints procedure.
The ombudsman was interviewd by LGC after inspector Max Caller recommended the county be reorganised into two unitary councils in his best value report released last week.
Mr Caller said it was unusual for the ombudsman to provide unprompted evidence to such a document.
“Most of the individual staff we worked with at Northamptonshire CC were decent people who did their best to work with us,” Mr King said.
“But the sense we had, through the lens of complaints, was that the kind of maturity we would expect from governance around complaints systems wasn’t being played out in terms of outcomes.”
The ombudsman said responses to their adjudications from Northamptonshire’s senior management had been “defensive” and “slightly chaotic”.
Mr King said it was “very rare” for the ombudsman to issue a witness summons. In a 2017 letter to the council “we had to twice threaten” to do that “to obtain the information we needed” from Northamptonshire.
“That really should set alarm bells ringing to management – you’re an outlier by definition if that’s happening,” he said.
“What I’d expect in most authorities is that someone in a senior position to see that as a problem and get things back on track; but unfortunately we’ve seen a pattern [at Northamptonshire] where this difficulty has continued over a number of years. We’ve met with them and talked about this, but it unfortunately didn’t improve.”
Mr King acknowledged that receiving an ombudsman report could be frustrating, but emphasised the need for “mature reflection” – even if it be through gritted teeth.
“I remember when I was a young assistant director [Mr King previously worked at Gateshead MBC and Northumberland CC] and I wanted to dispute a decision in a similar sort of situation. One of the councillors who’d been around a bit put his arm around me and said, ‘Look mate, once the referee has blown his whistle, you stop arguing’.”
“I think that basically sums up the position. Rather than learning from the decision and engaging with a mature reflection of what’s gone wrong, we’ve got Northamptonshire officers questioning recommendations – which is just totally out of order.”
In terms of best practice, Mr King said councils should work with the ombudsman to improve their complaints procedures.
“A good local authority will use complaints as a barometer of what’s going on, because it’s free intelligence,” he said.
“There are very few sources of external intelligence for senior management, so lots of chief executives seize upon the complaints evidence and put it at the heart of their governance.
“It gives them a way of triangulating what they’re being told by staff with what they’re being told by external experience.”
The ombudsman also offers guidance on help on how councils can improve their internal processes.
“We issue thematic ‘focus reports’ for every local authority with free intelligence in there,” Mr King said. “We also provide training on good complaints systems with our own investigators, available at a modest charge. There’s a range of help we can give.”