An end to the days of delay, deny and defend

Getting the complaints culture right

Elisabeth DaviesLast week, I listened to the coverage of Ann Clwyd’s review of the NHS complaints system in England and, as is so often the case, I found myself reflecting on the parallels, and questioning whether there is learning for legal services.

The report concludes there has been a “decade of failure” and calls for a revolution in complaints handling.  And yet the actions being called for are hardly revolutionary.  I don’t doubt the potential benefit of the Nursing and Midwifery Council including new duties over complaints handling in its code of conduct; a pledge from Health Education England to develop an e-learning course to improve training; and the Care Quality Commission to place a strong focus on complaints in its new hospital inspection regime. But aren’t most of us surprised that this isn’t already happening?

What really resonated for me was talk of Board level scrutiny of complaints information.  As a Non-Executive Director in the NHS I Chaired the Risk Management Sub Committee and led on complaints.  Every complaint that came to the Trust was scrutinised by that Committee.  I made sure the learning was distilled and captured and I only considered a complaint closed when evidence could be provided that reassured the Committee how the problem at the heart of the complaint was unlikely to recur again.  So if we had to leave complaints open, we did so, as to me this was more honest and less arbitrary than considering a complaint closed just because the final letter had been sent.

This idea of closing the loop – of the learning from complaints providing you with risk management in action – is a personal passion of mine but I realise this was all over 13 years ago. It was hardly trail-blazing then – that it’s not happening now is both disappointing and depressing.

So what does all of this mean for legal services?  What really jumps out is the relationship between information from complaints and raising standards.  In responding to the Clwyd report, the Health Secretary said he wanted to see “a complete transformation in hospitals’ approach to complaints so that they become valued as vital learning tools”.  Complaints shouldn’t become valued as vital learning tools; this is something that should be happening now, across all sectors and all markets.  Most importantly it lies at the heart of any Ombudsman scheme which is marked out by its focus on using complaints data to raise industry standards.

In legal services, as well as in health, it’s not just about getting the complaints process right but it’s about the change in culture – a change that is both needed and is starting to feel long overdue.  We must see complaints as important tools that help us improve, rather than remaining trapped in the current defensive mindset that too often seems to mark legal services providers.