Research by Oxford University shows that 60% of UK consumers who used an ombudsman to resolve their complaints about public sector bodies felt ‘very dissatisfied’ with how their cases were dealt with.
Nearly 3,000 of the people surveyed between September 2014 and March 2015 reported much lower levels of satisfaction using an ombudsman for public bodies than for those dealing with complaints in the private sector. The newly published research is particularly timely, given the implementation of a new EU Directive requiring that more consumer disputes 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 members of the public who seek help from ombudsmen may have overly optimistic expectations at the outset of what ombudsman staff can do for them. It highlights a need for better training for staff who have the initial contact with members of the public. The report found that the information communicated in the first instance to members of the public was particularly important and staff needed to know how to handle expectations that were simply ‘too high’.
The research focuses on ombudsmen covering public cases about local government, and parliamentary and health services, as well as complaints in the private sector concerning legal, financial, property, energy and telecoms services. The study says complaints brought to public and private ombudsmen are very different in nature. It compares people’s experiences of the overall management of complaints but did not go into the details of individual cases.
Although there were similarities in the expectations on initial contact with both public and private ombudsmen, the report finds a ‘stark divide’ between users of public and private bodies once procedures are underway. 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.
Respondents reported a favourable outcome for only 11% of public complaints, compared with 53% of private complaints. Respondents’ overall impressions of all ombudsmen show that most (60%) felt that the procedure was either ‘somewhat fair’ or ‘very fair’. While one quarter of all users said the procedure was ‘somewhat unfair’ or ‘very unfair’, this rose to 57% of those using ombudsmen for public schemes.
The study gives examples of some of the complaints made to ombudsmen dealing with public sector bodies. They included: ‘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.’
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 comparestheir experiences when dealing with complaints about both public and private bodies.’
‘Given the current trend is towards the use of ombudsmen, it is important to take on board some of 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.’
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