Last week I attended Parliament with Chief Executive Amanda Campbell, for our annual scrutiny hearing with the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC).
Our annual scrutiny hearing with PACAC helps the Committee understand how we have performed over the past year. They question us about areas of our work that are going well, highlight what needs to be improved and make sure that we are providing an effective and efficient public service.
Prior to our hearing, on 8 January, the Committee held an evidence gathering session with Peter Tyndall, Ombudsman for the Republic of Ireland and President of the International Ombudsman Institute and Chris Gill, Lecturer at the University of Glasgow. They spoke to the Committee about the peer review they carried out to assess whether our service provides value for money.
On the right track
I spoke about the progress we have made in implementing our three-year strategy to improve the quality of our service, increase the transparency and impact of our casework and work with partners to improve public services. I highlighted the peer review’s conclusion that we are on the right track to becoming an exemplary ombudsman service.
I explained that the review had also been very helpful in pointing out where more work needs to be done. I agree with the Committee’s suggestion that an independent review process should become a regular part of our assessment.
Challenging us on our performance
The Committee rightly challenged us to provide evidence of how our operational performance has improved since the new strategy was put in place. Our ongoing training programme and our focus on clearing the casework queue were just two examples we gave that demonstrate the impact of our organisational reforms.
Annual and quarterly reports on our performance against our Service Charter commitments mean PACAC and the wider public can now monitor our progress. Amanda and I explained to the Committee how valuable the Service Charter has been in providing insight into how complainants feel about our service. This has been fundamental in developing our professional skills training programme for staff.
Growing our impact
I welcomed scrutiny of our insight work that shares the learning from themes and trends in our casework. It can be challenging to measure the impact of this work, but we know that action is being taken as a result of the insights we have shared. Driving improvement in public services is a priority for us and I argued that we could have an even greater impact if we had the power to investigate issues that have not been raised in the complaints we receive. This power would let us speak up on behalf of people who may be in circumstances that leave them unable or unwilling to complain. This is why we want to see a change in the law that would give us ‘own initiative’ powers.
I also explained that our role in driving improvements in front-line complaints handling could be more effective if we had Complaints Standards Authority powers. Although we are the authoritative voice on complaints-handling and we work closely with public services to share our expertise, we do not have the power to set the standards for good complaints-handling. If we were granted these powers, we could have an even greater impact on improving how complaints are managed in public services. The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman already holds this power.
I urged the Committee to consider these factors as part of the upcoming Public Service Ombudsman bill. I believe that this legislative reform would increase our capacity to improve public services and make it easier for people to access justice when things go wrong.
These changes would bring us in line with good practice in the international ombuds sector and would make sure our organisation is fit for purpose, both now and in the future.
On behalf of PACAC and as Chair of the Committee, Bernard Jenkin MP expressed thanks to all PHSO staff for the difficult work that they do.