Complaint data

This research was conducted by Chris Gill, Tom Mullen, and Nial Vivian. It was funded by the Nuffield Foundation through the UK Administrative Justice Institute and investigated how complaint data could be used in administrative justice research.

The aim of this research was to explore Scotland’s new system for local authority complaint handling. Following the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) was tasked with simplifying and standardising complaint procedures across the Scottish public sector. To do so, it created an internal team called the Complaints Standards Authority (CSA). The CSA’s role involves designing model complaint handling procedures (model CHPs), monitoring the operation of those procedures (including setting data reporting requirements), and supporting the development of good practice in complaint handling.

The aim of report was to provide an insight into the operation of these new arrangements in the local authority sector. Our specific aims were to: examine how the model CHP in the local authority sector was operating; explore the usefulness to administrative justice researchers of the complaint data now being published; identify opportunities for future administrative justice research; and draw lessons for wider administrative justice policy based on early experiences of this new approach in Scotland. This summary outlines our key conclusions for each aim.

The operation of the model CHP

The new model CHP has been implemented across Scotland and stakeholders directly involved in the process are unanimous that this has been a success. Key benefits identified by interviewees were improvements in simplicity and speed for complainants and the beginnings of a more positive culture around complaints in local authorities. The publication of complaints data was seen by most interviewees as focusing minds on complaints and providing opportunities for learning. The key challenges in relation to the new system related to inconsistency between authorities in collecting data, how complaint data should be interpreted, and how performance indicators around complainant satisfaction and learning from complaints should be reported against.

Administrative justice research

The data now being published represent a significant enhancement in the evidence available to researchers to make evaluations of the public service complaint system in Scotland. Previously, little was known about the volume, timeliness, outcomes, user satisfaction, and learning from complaints in local authorities. While this information is useful, issues around data categorisation and inconsistent recording practices provide some limits on interpreting the data. In addition, there would be significant benefit to researchers in additional data being collected, for example, around the demographic characteristics of complainants and about the types of issues that are being subjected to complaint. Greater standardisation and central publication of data would also facilitate the use of complaint data in future research.

Administrative justice policy

The SPSO’s new role represents a significant development: while not constituting the regulation of complaint handling, the standard setting and monitoring role the ombudsman performs in relation to complaints is a clear move away from an ombudsman’s classic complaint handling function. This study – although it does not constitute an evaluation of the new approach and is very much exploratory in nature –provides some initial support for the benefits of the SPSO’s enhanced ombudsman model.

While there is potential in the new approach, there are some questions about whether the approach would be effective in a larger jurisdiction than Scotland. On a wider basis, the SPSO’s new role raises interesting questions for administrative justice policy in relation to the external monitoring of internal grievance procedures, the role of the ombudsman within the administrative justice system, and the opportunities to take more strategic approaches to learning from complaints.