Elected members should be at the heart of complaints about their councils, according to Michael King.
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman sees his office as sharing a key role with councillors in providing local accountability for public services.
“There is a really strong relationship between the feedback and intelligence we get from complaints, and the role of members in trying to represent their locality but also to hold their own local authority to account,” Mr King says.
Members – either as part of the executive or as part of full council – are on the receiving end of his office’s work; they act as local representatives (originally, residents could only bring complaints to the ombudsman through their local councillor), and they can provide a link between scrutiny and complaints, he adds.
“Complaints provide an incredibly useful set of data and intelligence for members to use in scrutiny, because they are the real stories of real people using real services, and I think that’s why they are so valuable,” says Mr King.
“Councillors are the natural eyes in giving the public a voice when things go wrong, and in trying to promote service improvement, transparency and accountability at a local level. So I think there is a really strong relationship for us to have with elected members; it’s certainly not one they need to feel defensive of.”
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGO) investigates individual complaints about local public services and registered social care providers. In 2017/18, it logged 17,452 complaints. It carried out 4,020 detailed investigations, upholding 57 per cent of these complaints, and made 3,622 recommendations to put things right.
“It would be wrong for us to arbitrarily disapply people’s rights because of local funding pressures
Each year, the LGO writes to every council about their complaints, and publishes thematic reports identifying trends and issues affecting the sector (these also include questions for councillors to ask in scrutiny). Recent high-profile reports have looked at homelessness and temporary accommodation, as well as education, health and care plans.
Mr King is the first to concede that the number of complaints received by an individual council will usually correlate to the size of its population and its responsibilities. A large, upper tier authority will get more complaints than a small district council.
A doubling of complaints in the latter could be the result of just one controversial planning development or a mobile phone mast going up – “it doesn’t tell you anything about the corporate health of the authority”, he says.
“I’m very keen to try to move the national conversation about complaints away from ‘have they gone up or have they gone down’ to what do they tell us about the corporate health of that body? What do they tell us about lessons we can learn to avoid the same things happening again, and how can we use them to drive service improvement?
“I want a more sophisticated conversation with the sector – and, if possible, with the media – about what complaints mean.”
Allowing for that big picture, however, Mr King is adamant that complaints can help to identify trends within local government as a whole, and particular concerns within individual councils.
“It would be easy to think ‘complaints, there are a small number of them, it’s a self-selecting group, how much does that tell you about the world?’
“Yet over and over again, what we find is that they are actually quite a significant and telling insight, and an early warning into things that are going wrong, either with individual authorities or in terms of trends.
“The strength of it is it’s the lived experience of local government reflected in people’s complaints. And often, they provide some really profound insights into what’s going on.”
So should councillors be worried if their local authority is getting a lot of complaints – or, conversely, if it is getting very few?
“Sometimes good authorities get lots of complaints because they are very open, mature – they’re listening, they’re learning. I would never condemn a local authority for having high numbers of complaints,” says Mr King.
“If you’re getting disproportionately fewer complaints than similar authorities, then that’s a cause for concern. If I was an elected member, I would be asking questions because that, potentially, is a sign you are not open to feedback – you’re not listening to the people who use your services, and maybe problems are being swept under the carpet.”
The three areas the LGO has reported on most in the last 12 months are adult social care, children’s services, and homelessness. The LGO has recorded year-on-year increases in complaint numbers for adult social care for the past eight years, with a disproportionate number (around two-thirds) of those complaints upheld.
Mr King is concerned about sometimes “arbitrary cuts” in the amount of care people receive, and local authorities increasingly saying they can’t afford to do what guidance or legislation tells them to do – for example, around some areas of charging for care.
“There are some structural things we are seeing, where in some cases it’s not about individual mistakes, misunderstandings or errors, it’s about policy positions being adopted to try to balance the books, which are either not in accordance with principles of good public administration or have unforeseen consequences for people at the margins,” he says.
In children’s services, the LGO continues to monitor education, health and care plans (EHCPs), where the uphold rate on complaints remains at around 80 per cent – mostly to do with delays and failings in moving children from statements of special educational needs to EHCPs.
And, last year, the LGO’s report on homelessness identified continuing problems with homelessness and housing in London, but also that these problems were spreading beyond the capital – and affecting working families, rather than ‘stereotypical’ rough sleepers.
“People think of homelessness in terms of people sleeping rough on the streets, people who’ve got drink or drug problems or are going through some sort of life crisis,” says Mr King.
“That’s not the big picture of homelessness we are dealing with through our complaints. We’re seeing people – often who are in work – being priced out of private sector accommodation and being housed in unsuitable temporary accommodation. In some cases, ironically, it’s people who work for the council who are applying for help with homelessness.”
The LGA continues to campaign for improved funding for local government, particularly in adult care and children’s services. But while Mr King, as a former local government officer, is sympathetic to the sector’s financial situation, he is adamant that it must hold councils to account based on established law, rights, guidance and standards.
“We have to be very careful not to be political and draw political conclusions. It’s for others to draw conclusions about what might be going wrong. We can’t comment on whether things are properly funded or not, or whether the legislation is correct or not, that’s just not our remit. All we can do is highlight the experiences we are seeing through the lens of complaints,” he says.
“It would be wrong for us to arbitrarily disapply people’s rights because of local funding pressures. That doesn’t mean I’m blind to the realities and difficulties that local authorities face. The LGO has been through the same process; we’ve implemented cuts of 43 per cent, so we’ve got the t-shirt.”
Looking ahead, the LGO is making changes to how it records and publishes data about how complaints are remedied, with the aim of moving away from a simplistic focus on complaint volumes to one that looks at the lessons that can be learned to improve services for the many, not just those who complain. These include plans for an interactive map showing how councils have responded to LGO recommendations.
Also in the pipeline is a report on how councils are managing change and transformation, and how that is playing out in terms of complaints. Mr King is concerned about the introduction of blanket policies that have unforeseen consequences or, in some cases, are unlawful, and instances of “corporate memory loss” as services are outsourced or reconfigured in different ways.
His office has come across instances where local authorities have lost access to their own records, which shows “just how important it is to put proper governance around these arrangements”.
“The commercialisation and transformation agenda brings new challenges in terms of public accountability,” Mr King says.
“Significant externalisation of services shouldn’t mean that a golden thread of accountability between the public and the council is lost. People should be building into their outsourcing contracts provisions so they have proper oversight of what’s being delivered, but also so that there’s proper accountability for when people complain. We’re seeing that done very well, sometimes we’re seeing it absent altogether.
“On a similar note, there’s lots of new partnerships and structures emerging in local government – combined authorities, partnerships with the health service. Lots of those things are wholly good and are attempts to create more joined up public services.
“But again, in creating those new structures, you have to be very clear that public accountability needs to remain at the heart of it – the public voice has to be there.”
He adds: “We see some authorities that are very defensive and unhelpful when we try to investigate. We see others who are mature and open.
“It’s not about whether you make mistakes, because we all do – me included; it’s about how you react to them and how you learn from them.”