The Ombudsman’s first open meeting

Manchester, 30 November 2017


Our first ever open meeting was attended by over 100 people, including a diverse mix of complainants, complaint handlers and representatives of national bodies.   

The meeting coincided with the consultation on our new three year strategy, providing vital insights into how we can continue to improve our service, and do more to support frontline complaint handlers. 

What happened on the day?

The day opened with speeches from the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman Rob Behrens, father and patient safety campaigner Scott Morrish, and independent investigator Dr Bill Kirkup. 

  • Rob shared his vision for developing a modern Ombudsman service, which will prioritise our core role in delivering impartial and independent investigations. He emphasised how the open meeting was the first of many and part of a wider ambition to build trust in our service by becoming more open, transparent and accessible.
  • Scott Morrish spoke powerfully about the impact of the NHS’s failure to provide open and honest answers over the death of his three year old son Sam, and the challenges he faced in establishing that Sam’s death was avoidable. He implored both the NHS and the Ombudsman to make trustworthiness their goal.
  • Dr Kirkup shared his experience as an independent investigator, highlighting how fear of blame and organisational defensiveness often prevented vital learning and improvement.  

The opening session was followed by tailored breakout sessions for people who use our service, complaint handlers and national organisations.  Each workshop was co-facilitated by both our staff and representatives from external organisations.  

The day concluded with a Q&A session and panel discussion chaired by Board Director Elisabeth Davies, which included the opening speakers, Chief Executive Amanda Campbell and Bernard Jenkin MP, chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.  

We live streamed both the opening speeches and the Q&A session on our YouTube channel

Breakout sessions 

1. Complainants: Your experience of using our service and the complaints process

This session was facilitated by Andrew Medlock, our Assistant Director of Customer Experience and Jenny Negus, Deputy Chief Nurse at United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust. It was predominantly attended by people who have used or are currently using our service. 

The first key theme was around our use of clinical advice. Participants felt the current process lacked transparency and that they would like the opportunity to meet with clinical advisers to ask questions and challenge the advice provided.  

The second key theme was about the quality and transparency of our investigations. Participants said they sometimes found our findings to be inconsistent and that it felt at times like we did not take their version of events seriously enough, which ended up adding to their distress. 

Participants wanted us to do more to make them feel that they are part of the process, being listened to and that the individual circumstances of their complaint are being properly taken into account.  Greater involvement of complainants throughout the case work process was seen as key to achieving this.

Overall, they told us that openness, transparency and honesty are key lessons for us to learn and that we need to work harder at gaining their trust in our process. 

Andrew Medlock emphasised that our new Service Charter enables us to measure the quality of our case handling and the experience of people who use our service. This includes key measures on openness, transparency and putting things right when we make mistakes, which will help us further improve our service

2. Complaint Handlers: What makes for good complaint handling? 

This session was facilitated by Rebecca Marsh, our Director of Operations and Investigations and Mark McKenna the Head of Patient Experience at the Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust. Participants were asked to consider and feedback on three issues:

  1. the key elements of good complaint handling
  2. the key challenges faced in delivering good complaint handling
  3. the type of support they would welcome to meet these challenges.

Common themes on good complaint handling included:

  • seeking early informal resolution where possible; building a better rapport with complainants through regular and open communication; making honest and open apologies early
  • making evidence-based findings
  • providing assurance on service improvements and updating complainants as these are implemented.

The key themes that were raised around the challenges of delivering good complaint handling included:

  • a lack of staff resources
  • the level of senior ‘buy-in’ to the process within organisations
  • a fear of blame
  • effective management of complainant expectations
  • ensuring that lessons are acted on and shared more widely. 

On support, participants highlighted the need for standardised training for complaint handlers and consistent senior level engagement in learning from complaints. For us specifically, participants highlighted the importance of regular communication about the status of investigations, identifying and sharing best practice. They also suggested that our staff could receive training from some of the organisations we investigate in their specific complaints policies and procedures. 

3. Regulators: Cutting through the complexity of the complaints system 

This session was facilitated by Alex Robertson, our Executive Director of External Affairs and Lee Bennet, NHS England’s Strategic Complaints Lead. Participants were asked to consider and feedback on both what is complex about the complaints system (whether you are a complainant, service provider or regulator) and what should be done to make the complaints system more accessible.

Key issues that were raised included the complexity of the multiple routes that exist for people to make complaints (such as service providers, MPs, commissioners and regulators), as well as the multiple organisations  involved in delivering services, which can lead to unclear lines of responsibilities when things go wrong. Participants highlighted that jargon and acronyms could also put people off complaining and make the system less accessible.

Participants also discussed that a solution might be a central hub or organisation that would signpost or triage people’s complaints or concerns to the right place. The importance of strong leadership at the highest level (whether at the NHS Trust Board, or nationally) would ‘set the tone for everyone else’ in the system. 

What happens next? 

We will use what we heard in the breakout sessions and Q&A to inform the development of our new strategy, which will have a strong focus on further strengthening our case handling capability, increasing the transparency of our processes and improving the way we communicate with users of our service. 

Open meetings will now be a regular event to ensure that as many people as possible have the opportunity to contribute directly to the continual improvement of our service. The next meeting is planned to take place in London in May 2018, shortly after the publication of our new strategy.