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Why it is important to listen to uncomfortable truths

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

“Sometimes what an organisation needs to hear is inversely related to what it wants to hear,” said Tom Reader, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological & Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics & Political Science, in a March 2017 lecture on the benefits of learning from complaints.

Such words probably ring true to people closely involved in mopping up the financial mess at Northamptonshire CC.

But those words should also resonate across the country because the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman has reported that the number of complaints it upheld has risen for the third year in a row.

Ombudsman Michael King stressed upheld complaints should not be seen as a cause for concern, but rather a “great source of free feedback” and a “learning tool” for local authorities.

Historically, there has been a struggle to grasp that concept.

Three years ago, the National Audit Office’s report ‘Public service markets: Putting things right when they go wrong’ highlighted the fact that public sector organisations “do not make enough use of complaints to improve services” and added “there are serious impediments to doing so” with no standardised approach to recording or reporting complaints while data-sharing was said to be “irregular and informal”.

The NAO’s head Sir Amyas Morse said: “Effective consumer and redress systems allow providers to be held accountable, improve quality and identify failure and malpractice. Many users have problems with public services, and serious detriment can and does occur.”

According to the ombudsman users mainly complained about education and children’s services, adult care services, and housing and planning services in 2017-18.

Of course, a large volume of complaints about a particular service and/or a certain council should not necessarily set off alarm bells.

“High volumes of complaints can be a sign of an open, learning organisation, as well as sometimes being an early warning of wider problems,” the ombudsman’s report said. “Low complaint volumes can be a worrying sign that an organisation is not alive to user feedback, rather than always being an indicator that all is well.”

Also, numbers alone do not necessarily tell the whole story as they do not account for their severity.

“In some complaints people die, and in other complaints the Wi-Fi isn’t working,” said Alex Gillespie, another associate professor in the Department of Psychological & Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics & Political Science in the same lecture mentioned at the beginning of this briefing.

One of the most high-profile cases of a council failing to listen to complaints in recent times is the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Residents had made numerous complaints over a number of years about fire safety at Grenfell Tower to both Kensington & Chelsea RBC and the tenant management organisation which was, at the time, responsible for managing the building. And yet nothing was done.

Somewhat worryingly Mr King said in the foreword to his report that there were, last year, “some examples of councils not being as receptive to putting things right without significant pressure from my office”.

However, there were no formal incidents of non-compliance while Mr King also said he “saw councils working constructively to remedy injustices and take on board how they could prevent further people being affected by issues highlighted in investigations”, even if it came at a cost.

“I commend this culture of learning from complaints,” said Mr King.

Long may it continue.

By David Paine, acting news editor

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