The public gives its verdict on how ombudsmen deal with complaints | University of Oxford
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Scales of justice

The public gives its verdict on how ombudsmen deal with complaints

Research by Oxford University shows that around six out of ten UK consumers who used an ombudsman to resolve their complaints about organisations in the public sector were ‘very dissatisfied’ with how their cases were dealt with. 

In terms of what was valued most about those dealing with their complaint, the survey revealed the public wanted ombudsman staff to 'keep their word' and wanted the outcome properly explained. Some of the complaints made about ombudsmen dealing with their cases were: 'I don’t believe my complaints were fully understood and acknowledged properly'; 'Had missed the key points of my correspondence, had to explain'; 'Do not feel my complaint was investigated thoroughly. No face contact. No final action taken'.   

Nearly 3,000 of the people surveyed between September 2014 and March 2015 reported being far less satisfied with ombudsman used for complaints about public organisations than for those in the private sector. The research is timely given the EU has directed that more consumer disputes should be resolved outside of courts through Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) bodies like ombudsmen.

The report by Dr Naomi Creutzfeldt of Oxford’s Centre for Socio-Legal Studies suggests that those seeking help from ombudsmen may have overly high expectations at the outset of what can be achieved. It says given the period of initial contact with the public seems so important, staff who have the first contact may need better training for managing the expectations of the public, which are often simply 'too high'.

Given the trend towards the use of ombudsmen, It is important to take on board the findings in order to improve the public's experience and satisfaction levels.

Dr Naomi Creutzfeldt, Oxford's Centre for Socio-Legal Studies. 

Although there were similarities in the expectations on initial contact with both public and private ombudsmen, the report finds there is a 'stark divide' between perceptions of those using public and private bodies once procedures are under way. 60% of respondents surveyed said they were 'very willing' or 'fairly willing' to accept the outcome of their disputes involving ombudsmen. Of these, only 10% of those involved in a dispute with ombudsmen for a public body said they were 'very willing' compared with 42% who had used ombudsmen for private services. Conversely, over half of respondents with complaints about public bodies said they were 'very unwilling' compared with 22% of all private complaints. 57 % of those involved in public complaints said the procedure was 'somewhat unfair' or 'very unfair' compared with just a quarter of those involved in private complaint. The study respondents reported a favourable outcome for only 11% of public complaints, compared with 53% of private complaints.

Study author Dr Naomi Creutzfeldt said: 'To date, little is known about how much faith the public have in the  services provided by ombudsmen, although they are a significant part of our administrative and civil justice system in the UK. My study provides a first step towards benchmarking what the public expects from ombudsmen, and compares their experiences. Given the trend towards the use of ombudsmen, it is important to take on board the findings in order to improve the public’s experience and satisfaction levels.'

Responding to the research, Local Government Ombudsman Dr Jane Martin said: 'I welcome this important research into the public’s expectations and experiences of using ombudsmen schemes in both the public and private sectors. The study provides some important insights and we will continue to do more to explain the role of the ombudsman in providing an impartial and independent route to redress.

'At the same time we recognise that there is an inherent difference in the contractual relationship between a consumer and a supplier of goods and services and the more complex relationship between the citizen and the State. Further research into how these different relationships impact upon perceptions of ombudsmen could provide an opportunity to better understand how we and other ombudsmen can meet expectations of our service.'

The research project was funded by the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council).  It focuses on how ombudsmen dealt with complaints concerning local government, parliamentary matters and health services, as well as complaints relating to legal, financial, property, energy and telecoms services in the private sector; and compared experiences of the overall management of complaints without going into the details of individual cases.