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Wales Ombudsman calls on Welsh public bodies to tackle ‘fear and blame culture’

A “fear and blame” culture within Welsh public sector bodies must be tackled if lessons are to be learnt from complaints, the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales has said.

In a report, Ending Groundhog Day: Lessons from Poor Complaint Handling, Nick Bennett highlighted cases from across devolved public services in Wales where investigations by public bodies had been inadequate and failed the service user.

The report also noted:

  • Inappropriate/inadequate involvement of staff complained about;
  • inadequate investigation of complaints;
  • delay in responding to complaints;
  • incomplete/inaccurate responses to complaints; and
  • defensive attitude to complaints.

The Ombudsman said that in some instances, the way in which complaints had been handled, and the subsequent outcome, were found to be “nothing less than absurd;” and strong leadership was needed to ensure a lasting impact for service users.

Bennett called for effective governance across the Welsh public sector. In his report he said boards and cabinets responsible for governance needed to ensure that austerity or other pressures were not used as an excuse for poor complaint handling.

In this regard, they should:

(a) ensure that the person investigating a complaint is sufficiently independent of the events complained about, and that the person determining the body’s response to a complaint is both sufficiently senior and independent;

(b) receive reports on complaints within their organisation on a regular basis;

(c) satisfy themselves that measures have been put in place to ensure the same failings do not happen again, and that lessons from one part of the organisation are learned more widely;

(d) seek out and learn from external best practice;

(e) identify and tackle endemic issues.

The Ombudsman also demanded robust staff training and improved methods of data collection.

Bennett said: “I am concerned that some public sector bodies are stuck in Groundhog Day mode where patterns of poor quality complaint handling are repeated endlessly.

“A fear and blame culture and a general defensive attitude towards complaints need to be tackled by senior staff to ensure these patterns don’t continue. Only through committed learning and progressive leadership will we see a positive shift towards better complaint handling.”

He added: “I would also like to see better data made available to identify patterns of poor complaint handling and to tackle bad practice.

“I am hopeful that new Ombudsman legislation, if passed by the Assembly, will allow the gathering and reporting of consistent and comparable data across public services in Wales.”