Founded in 1928 as The Heston Ratepayer’s Association

Heston Residents Association

Title 1

The Ombudsman



If you are not satisfied with the way that our Council has done something or the fact that it has not done something, you can refer the matter to the Council’s complaints procedure.  The complaints procedure has three stages to it.  Stage 1 of the procedure is a complaint to the Officer providing, or failing to provide, the service.  If you are not satisfied with his/her response you can refer the matter to stage 2 of the procedure.  This requires a response from the Officer’s Head of Department.  If you are still not satisfied the matter can be referred to stage 3 of the procedure.  Stage 3 is a review of the issue by a panel of three Councillors.  If the issue is still not resolve to your satisfaction you can refer the matter to the Local Government Ombudsman (the “LGO”). 
 
The House of Commons Select Committee for Communities and Local Government is currently investigating the work and performance of the LGO and invited HRA to submit evidence to the Committee.  The submission has been accepted as evidence and published on the parliamentary website.  It can be read in full by going to www.parliament.uk/clg. 
 
(Scroll down to the section headed "Current Inquiries"; click on "further review of the work and performance of the Local Government Ombudsman"; scroll down to "What's on"; in the green box where it says "Publications" there is a dropdown menu which probably shows "correspondence". Click the dropdown and select "written evidence" and then click "go". 
This should show about 6 written documents. Click on the one headed "Heston Residents' Association - written evidence".) 
 
In its Executive summary HRA observed: 
The barriers to investigating a complaint are so high that many important complaints are not investigated 
The analysis by the LGO of complaints is prone to ignoring inconvenient facts 
The concept of customer service is not part of the culture of the Office of the LGO  
There is no independent review of decisions of the LGO    
The administrative procedures within the Office of the LGO remain very poor 
From the public’s point of view the Office of the LGO serves no useful purpose 
The Office of the LGO should be replaced by a more appropriate organisation 
 
Preamble 
 
In order to remain relevant to its membership of over 600 households, HRA provides a focal point for issues of concern to members and provides help and advice to members when they are dealing with their Local Authority.  The increased use of information technology by our local authority presents a significant barrier to HRA members if they are not IT literate.  This gives rise to a significant amount of casework for HRA Officers, particularly in the realms of planning control, planning enforcement and other environmental issues. 
 
Operating in this way, HRA Officers have developed significant expertise in Council procedures, local government law and planning regulations.  They also observe trends in areas of concern to HRA members and in the operational style of their local authority.  Of particular concern to HRA Officers is the growing complexity of local government decision-making processes which both elected Members and the general public have difficulty in understanding. 
 
This has resulted in decisions made by Council Officers becoming more difficult to challenge for both Members and the general public.  Pressures on finances and increasingly demanding timescales for completing tasks such as determining planning applications have encouraged Officers to take decisions under delegated authority that appear to be based on administrative convenience rather than compliance with legislative requirements and/or published procedures.  This in turn challenges fundamental principles of democratic control of local government. 
 
Increasingly Officers are taking decisions under delegated authority that are untested in public.  While every local authority expresses total commitment to transparency and public engagement in the decisions they take, their procedures are rapidly moving in the opposite direction. 
 
To retain democracy within local government it is essential that there is a simple and inexpensive way in which the public can hold its local authority to account, and challenge decisions that appear to owe more to administrative convenience or political expedience than they do to compliance with written procedures or delivery of public service. 
 
The current system of referring un-reconciled issues to the Office of the LGO has consistently failed to deliver a reasonable degree of public satisfaction with the services received.  This is exacerbating an ever-increasing democratic deficit within local government.  There is a widely held view that the public have no influence over local government because it cannot be held to account. 
   
The assessment code 
 
The LGO will not investigate a complaint unless the complainant “has suffered serious loss, harm or distress as a direct result of the council’s faults or failures”.  This does not allow a residents’ association to act on behalf of its members.  Probably less than 5% of members of the Heston Residents’ Association would be able and willing to pursue an issue with their local authority or with the LGO in an individual capacity. 
 
The assessment of the degree of “seriousness” of the loss, harm or distress allows the LGO to consider every complaint to be insufficiently serious.  It can therefore be used as a mechanism to balance officer caseload against available officer resources.  Clearly anyone who goes to the considerable trouble of submitting a complaint to the LGO considers that his or her complaint is serious.  
 
The current assessment code does not allow a “class action” – where the Council changes its procedures in a way that is incompatible with statutory requirements, its own Corporate Governance Statement, or its Statement of Community Involvement.  Such actions may not cause direct harm to any specific individual but might cause significant consequential harm to all borough residents.   
 
Efficiency of handling complaints 
 
The LGO procedures for handling complaints is very poorly managed.  For example, a complaint was submitted on 11 February 2013.  An auto-acknowledgement of the complaint was received.  In response to an enquiry about progress on the complaint made on 12 May 2013 the LGO advised that the complaint had not been received by the LGO notwithstanding the existence of the acknowledgement of receipt sent by the Ombudsman. 
 
In response to a question about how the LGO had managed to send an acknowledgement to an email that it had not received, the LGO advised “an automated response does not guarantee that your email arrived in our inbox”.  This of course defies all logic.  It also puts the public in the position of being responsible for all errors arising from the failure of the LGO to handle correspondence correctly. 
 
The LGO also advised that because of the elapsed time (3 months), it was not possible to trace whether the correspondence had been received.  It again defies normal business practice if electronic correspondence is deleted within 3 months of receipt.  Normally correspondence would be archived for several years. 
 
The LGO then advised “I think it is fair to pose the question as to your role in this and ask why you did not contact us sooner”.  This suggests that the culture of the organisation is based on the concept that “the customer is always wrong”.  If an acknowledgement has been received the sender must be able to assume that correspondence is being processed.  
 
The LGO advised, “I cannot find any evidence to suggest that your email was lost or disregarded by any of my staff and I am unable to find out whether your email did actually arrive in our inbox”.  Presumably the existence of the acknowledgement receipt sent by the LGO was “inconvenient evidence”. 
 
The LGO advised that in his opinion the responses provided by the LGO were “adequate and factual”, but “unlikely to provide you with what you may perceive to be a satisfactory response.  However, I need to advise you we will not be responding any further and the matter is now closed”.  Not a good example of how a service organisation should respond. 
 
The response was signed by the Customer Service Manager and sent as an attachment to an email with the address of noreply@LGO.org.uk, thus preventing any response to the email. 
 
The Customer Service Manager has no public email address thus precluding any direct customer contact. 
 
Similarly, the Ombudsman herself has no public email address again precluding any direct customer contact with her.    
 
Customer satisfaction 
 
Of three complaints submitted to the LGO, all were concerned with the Council’s failure to comply with its own procedures.  None was upheld.  The LGO concluded that the Council need not comply with its own complaints procedure, and need not comply with its Statement of Community Involvement (SCI).  The SCI at the time was a statutory document signed off by the Secretary of State.  The Ombudsman thus allowed the Council to overrule the requirements of the Secretary of State. 
  
For every residents' association it is essential that the local authority fully complies with its own procedures at all times. If it does not, then it becomes impossible for any resident's association to give advice to its members, and hence the relevance and existence of every residents' association is put in jeopardy.    .   
 
In each case referred to the LGO the provisional view of the Ombudsman showed that significant (“inconvenient”) facts had been ignored.  This was pointed out in response to each of the provisional views.  In each case the case Officer advised that his view remained unchanged.  There was no explanation about why key facts were ignored.  This adds to the customer’s sense of dissatisfaction with the LGO.   
 
Where an LGO “customer” does not consider that a complaint has been fairly considered, there is no right of appeal.  The option of judicial review is unrealistic because of the cost.  Even if a judicial review goes against the LGO, it will, as a matter of course, be appealed at public expense and the appeal process puts the complainant at significant financial disadvantage. 
 
Conclusions 
 
The function of the Office of the LGO has evolved into maintaining the pretence of local democracy by suggesting that there is recourse available when maladministration occurs.  In practice the main activity of the LGO is to identify the reason(s) why the Ombudsman need not take any action. 
 
The Ombudsman has become a barrier to effective public engagement in local government. While central government urges the public to hold its local authorities to account, the Office of the LGO is the main impediment to doing so. 
 
All local authorities are well aware that the Ombudsman has no statutory powers - they can simply ignore any adverse findings by the Ombudsman. At the same time, the Ombudsman is also aware that any adverse findings are likely to be treated with disdain by the local authority.  Investigators therefore seek to avoid any adverse findings. The danger for the LGO of not doing so is that it becomes more widely understood that the LGO is not serving any useful purpose sooner rather than later. 
 
By not upholding a complaint, there are no consequences for the Ombudsman.  By upholding a complaint the Ombudsman may face a fierce challenge by a local authority.  The safe solution for every Investigator is to reject a complaint. 
 
Currently the Ombudsman is delivering low levels of customer satisfaction but remains a substantial burden on the public purse.    
 
Recommendations 
 
The medium term solution would be to replace the LGO with a system modelled on the small claims court - moderately priced resolution of disputes between residents and their local authority in a short time frame.  If the procedure requires modest financial payment by complainants then it would eliminate the current sense that the Ombudsman is doing you a favour by even considering your complaint.  
 
Some immediate actions should be considered: 
The assessment code should be amended to allow residents’ associations or other amenity groups to represent an individual complainant 
The assessment of the “seriousness” of loss, harm or distress should be on the basis of how serious it is perceived to be by the complainant. 
Provision should be made for “class-actions”. 
Customer service training should be compulsory for all customer-facing officers. 
Customer Service Manager and the Ombudsman herself should have email addresses that are visible to the public. 
Where a complainant responds to a provisional view, the Ombudsman should provide a reasoned response to that submission. 
All complainants should have the opportunity to complete a satisfaction survey. 
A program to change corporate culture within the Office of the LGO should be implemented.    
 
N Marbrow 
25 Nov 2013