The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO), formally the Commission for Local Administration in England, was established in 1974 - one of the longest standing ombudsman’s schemes.
It has served us well for nearly 40 years and has much to be proud of – but we must change with the times so that we remain relevant and resilient.
The recent communities and local government select committee inquiry has underlined the need for us to be ready and willing to be held accountable for the quality of our work and the use of public funds. In common with all public bodies, we also need to provide best possible public value and do more with less in times of financial austerity.
As the recently appointed chair of the commission I am only too well aware of the need for us to meet the expectations of complainants who come to us, the local authorities and other bodies in our jurisdiction, and the wider public. Having served as one of the local government ombudsmen since January 2010, I know that we cannot fall short in offering the best possible service. From this year the number of ombudsmen has been reduced from three to two - myself and my colleague Anne Seex - covering all local authorities in England. Anne is also vice-chair of the commission. We will work closely together to deliver greater consistency, ensure high quality and deliver independent, impartial investigations which ensure fairness for citizens.
Good local public administration is all the more important in increasingly complex delivery systems and the LGO needs to respond to that. Our discretion to investigate is now much more broadly drawn to include any allegation of injustice caused by service failure. Since October 2010 we have been the Ombudsmen for all complaints about adult social care – whether commissioned by the Council or privately paid for – and we now handle complaints about all registered social care providers as well as those concerning the local authority. We believe this will put us in a good position to resolve disputes with independent providers of other public services and provide redress for citizens who pay for their own services.
As the Open Public Services white paper makes clear, if citizens are going to make choices about the services their use to bring about improvements, they need good information. A lot can be learned from local complaints and the LGO has long supported councils in good complaint handling. We will always consider issuing a public report on a complaint in the wider public interest. In 2011-12 we issued 77. We also issue an annual review of each local authority and the reviews for 2011-12 are now on our website. We are now making plans to publish our decision statements on our website as soon as we are able to do so in 2013. This will help to support citizens to make an informed choice of services and provide useful feedback to local councillors and MPs. It will also mean that all our decision-making will be open and transparent.
In response to a budget cut of 27% by 2015 – and more beyond that – our plans to transform the organisation should also make us more resilient. To achieve this we will be introducing a leaner business model from April 2013 which will result in even more timely decisions and more proportionate use of resources on investigations – supported by a new quality assurance framework. We are rationalising our accommodation, will consolidate onto one site and have already begun to reduce our staffing.
We know there is always room for improvement. An internal review of cases taking longer than 52 weeks to resolve has already reduced the number to just 0.5% of all cases and we are actively reviewing every individual case which falls into this category to check that we are doing everything possible to achieve a satisfactory outcome. Sometimes we will have to put increased pressure on bodies in our jurisdiction to respond promptly to our enquiries.
Whatever challenges we may face, it is important to remind ourselves of the fundamental purpose of the ombudsman of restorative justice. Our annual report 2011-12 published on our website, shows that LGO made 11,229 complaint decisions in 2011-12, an increase on previous years and a trend that we expect to continue. In more than a quarter of these cases we identified significant injustice and obtained redress for the complainants concerned. Many of these were vulnerable individuals whose voice may otherwise have not been heard. We must continue to safeguard the right for all citizens to have an impartial investigation of their complaint whilst seeking to ensure proportionate dispute resolution. We gain great insight into the causes of injustice from the complaints we receive and our thematic focus reports are published to share our learning. The latest one of these highlights injustice resulting from service failure in the adult social care sector.
For the future we need to maintain and develop easy access to our service with rigorous service standards. We can learn from other ombudsman schemes to achieve this, such as the common portal created by the ombudsman in Wales and I am keen to explore ways in which we can harmonise our work with other schemes through shared services and joint working.