Councils mustn’t throw out the rule book in the face of pressure, says Ombudsman

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has challenged local authorities not to “throw out the rule book” when redesigning services in the face of budget and resource pressures.

In a new report, the Ombudsman reveals how the stark reality of the huge changes councils have made in the last decade, often in response to unprecedented financial pressures, is now playing out in the complaints it investigates.

The report, Under Pressure, is based on nearly 40 case studies in which the Ombudsman has identified systemic problems stemming from councils changing the way they provided services.

The report also recognises that although the Ombudsman receives relatively few complaints compared to the scale of local government services, sharing the learning from these cases can help councils avoid unforeseen negative consequences when undergoing change programmes.

Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, Michael King, said:

“The way councils have adapted and innovated in the face of huge challenges is to be admired. But the lesson from this report is for councils to get the basics right and not throw out the rule book when working under pressure. The core principles of good administration are more important than ever when undergoing major transformation.

“We don’t claim to have all the answers in this report. We are one piece in a complicated jigsaw – but we hope that our unique perspective, based on some people’s real-life experiences, can help to share learning and stimulate wider public policy debate about the issues.

“Some of the pitfalls to avoid when redesigning services include ensuring changed services continue to meet statutory levels and timescales, or making sure discretionary powers are not replaced by a one-size fits all approach.

“The report also highlights many examples where, by taking a proactive approach to our investigations, councils have used the learning to make significant improvements to their services for other people in their area.”

The Ombudsman’s report finds four common themes for councils to look out for, where ineffective planning for change can lead to service failure for local people:

  • Accommodating longer backlogs
  • Reviewing eligibility criteria
  • Using new partnerships and delivery arrangements
  • Restructuring and redesigning services

One example in the report shows how a council’s policy for investigating noise nuisance effectively rationed a statutory service, by requiring more than three different people to complain about the same issue before it would investigate. As a result of the Ombudsman’s investigation, the council revised its policy to bring it in line with statutory requirements and committed to promote it to local residents. This allowed the more than 6,000 people whose single complaints had been ignored, the chance to raise concerns, if they still had them.

In another extreme case, which warns about the potential loss of corporate memory through restructuring, a council was not able to explain to the Ombudsman how it came to a decision about implementing a new parking zone. This was because all the people involved had left and regular restructures meant entire teams and departments had changed or been deleted.

Under Pressure confirms the Ombudsman’s approach to taking account of change when investigating complaints.

Mr King added:

“While I appreciate the challenges councils are dealing with, we cannot make concessions for failures attributed to budget pressures and must continue to hold authorities to account against relevant legislation, standards, guidance and their own policies.”

The Ombudsman is increasingly having to probe whether service failures in individual cases point to faulty policies and practices – potentially affecting many people. In 2017/18, the Ombudsman made 21% more recommendations which will help authorities make service improvements.

Alongside the report, the Ombudsman is also launching a revised Principles of Good Administrative Practice document. This has been developed in consultation with the sector, and provides a shared understanding of what good administration looks like. The principles are aligned to those used by other UK ombudsmen – in particular the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsmen (PHSO). This alignment will enable both Ombudsmen to take a common approach as they increasingly work together to jointly investigate concerns crossing organisational boundaries.

Article date: 04 December 2018

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