On 17 November 2021, we were delighted to hold our second webinar on complaint handling in adult social care and social housing. The theme of the webinar was “Bridging the gap: translating learning into practice”. The webinar followed on from the event we held earlier in the year (summaries of that event can be found here and here). The webinar was attended by over 20 delegates, including representatives of local authorities, housing associations, third sector organisations, regulators, ombuds, and other government bodies.
In this post, we want to share the learning and discussions that emerged from the webinar. The first part of the session involved three excellent presentations from Lindsey Poole, Director of the Advice Services Alliance; Helen Wyatt, Strategic Customer Relations Manager for Devon County Council; and Dr Alex Gillespie, Associate Professor in Psychological & Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics.
Lindsey Poole discussed the history and role of the advice sector, noting the types of issues that were commonly raised by clients. She outlined the challenges facing the advice sector, including those relating to funding and service delivery, and the potential for overcoming these. Lindsey concluded that the advice sector could act as a “canary in the goldmine” and could work with others to highlight where problems needed to be addressed and lessons learned.
Helen Wyatt presented a case study exploring how Devon County Council had learned from a complaint that had been investigated by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman. Lessons from the case included the importance of investing time to consider complaints carefully, proceeding slowly to achieve culture change, and not losing sight of the complainant.
Alex Gillespie outlined three research projects conducted in healthcare settings, which demonstrated the value of complaints, the potential for them to be analysed systematically, and their ability to reveal data not otherwise available. He noted that challenges around learning included the fact that benefits to organisations are long term, upfront investment is required, and organisational learning is difficult to achieve.
The slides from the event are available below and a recording of the presentations is available here.
The presentations were followed by small group discussions, which highlighted the following themes:
- The relationship between ombuds/ regulators/ inspectors and learning from complaints. In many cases, having an external impetus on a complaint facilitated learning by requiring that attention and resources be devoted to wider learning rather than “fire-fighting” individual complaints and primary service delivery. Learning may already have been identified by the organisation, but the pressure from an external source meant that this learning was then given more priority and was easier to implement. There is, however, a need for external scrutiny bodies to work collaboratively with service providers – where processes are lengthy and gruelling, this can limit what might be learnt from a complaint. Collaboration could also ensure recommendations were realistic and implementable.
- Questions around resourcing learning. There was agreement that there were insufficient resources (including time and people) devoted to learning, despite the fact that this could lead to savings where systemic issues were identified and remedied. The opportunity to pause and reflect on complaints was often lacking in practice, as attention would inevitably be drawn to pressing and immediate problems. It was suggested that ring-fencing resources and having dedicated individuals/ teams devoted to learning could be one way of ensuring that learning stayed in focus.
- The specific value of complaints compared with other forms of scrutiny. Inquiries into catastrophic failures in both adult social care and social housing have in common that these failures were preceded by complaints which were ignored or not recognised by service providers. Complaints are a source of data that frequently pick up issues that are less easy to spot in more formal regulatory, audit, and inspection processes. Despite this, complaint handling tends to be under-resourced and under-valued in relation to other forms of scrutiny and there was a need to raise the status and understanding of complaints as a powerful vehicle for learning in public services.
- The place of complaint handling within organisations. Where complaint teams were located within organisations and their degree of authority was important in terms of enabling learning to take place. Where complaints teams were in a position to influence the broader organisation, this could lead to beneficial change. It was important also to ensure that complaints were considered at governance level, and this had to go beyond reporting, to ensure genuine understanding and ownership. Generally, there was a need for complaints to be seen as a more important part of service providers’ work, and some recent reforms in housing in England and social care in Scotland indicated a renewed emphasis on the importance of complaints.
- The need for systemic approaches. There was some scepticism about how much could be learned from dealing with individual complaints, rather than looking at groups of complaints to identify systemic problems. More systemic approaches could also move complaints away from an adversarial and potentially antagonistic paradigm, so that the focus turned towards identifying learning. Some ombuds and regulators were increasingly looking to work in this way and had benefitted from the amendment of existing legislative restrictions. Working systemically could also involve seeking to learn collaboratively with third sector organisations and advocacy bodies.
- Integration and joint service delivery. The issue of “messy joins” was discussed, where service delivery was fragmented, or responsibility split among a range of actors. This could be a source of complaints and could also act as an impediment to learning taking place. Outsourcing of services was a particular issue in terms of muddying responsibilities and lines of accountability. Generally, who needed to learn what lessons was an issue and even when lessons were identified it was not always possible to ensure these were implemented.
- Social media. Social media was recognised as simply another channel by which citizens could contact public services and make a complaint. Complaints were usually signposted to alternative ways to make their complaint.
- Culture. In some organisations there was still too much emphasis on individual responsibility. There was a tendency to focus on the easy wins rather than those complaints which raised more challenging issues, cutting across organisations or requiring additional resources. At times the desire for a learning culture floundered on internal barriers resulting in an ‘internal postcode lottery’. Constant changes in policy and procedure meant that some issues got lost in translation. Complaints professional networks were valued as a means of support and in helping share learning. Complaint handlers were keen to collaborate with the advice sector. Advocacy bodies play an important role in supporting citizens to make complaints.
Our aim in holding this event was to connect practitioners, policymakers and academics interested in improving complaint handling in adult social care and social housing. We are particularly interested in identifying issues at the cutting edge of practice that present persistent problems and which would benefit from research. We want to work collaboratively to conduct such research and to convert this into real world improvements in complaint systems. In pursuit of this agenda, we have applied for funding to conduct a large scale research project. We expect to know the outcome of our application in April and we will hold a further event in Spring 2022. If you are interested in attending and have not attended one of our events to date, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will add you to our mailing list for the event.