Complaints about public services and private industry are big business. Professor Patrick Dunleavy (LSE) and his colleagues have shown that the cost of providing redress in UK central government amounts to £1.5 billion a year. The private sector similarly expends significant resources on customer care and complaint handling activities; one only has to look at the volume of complaints and enquiries made to the Financial Ombudsman Service (a whopping 2,357,374 last year) to get a sense of the scale of the complaints sector in the UK.
For all that, the world of complaints and complaint handling has been subject to very little public attention. Even when complaints have been in the public eye, the portrayal has often been negative, with Channel 4’s recent series The Complainers being a prime example of the reductive and rather silly way in which issues around complaints are presented in the media. Professor Hodges (Oxford) and colleagues have gone so far as to describe the consumer dispute resolution landscape as “a hidden world” so far is it out of the public’s consciousness.
There are signs that this is changing. The UK parliament’s public administration select committee published two reports before the summer – More Complaints Please and Time for a People’s Ombudsman – which brought complaint handling under the spotlight. A key question emerging from this was how the public could be assured that complaint handling – both by public bodies and by the ombudsmen overseeing them – was of an adequate quality and standard. In Scotland, the process of rationalising and simplifying complaint processes spearheaded by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman is well advanced and has begun to transform complaint processes across the public services.
Yet, questions around professional standards and public assurance of good quality complaint handling have yet to be fully addressed. This is equally true for the private sector. So what can be done to increase professionalism in this area and to provide the public with assurance that the system as a whole delivers fair outcomes? A first step has been made in the area of professional education, where Queen Margaret University’s Consumer Insight Centre has been collaborating with colleagues from the ombudsman and complaint handling world to develop accredited qualifications for staff.
The University has a long-standing relationship with the Ombudsman Association and the International Ombudsman Institute and regularly delivers courses to dispute resolution staff across the UK and beyond. Education is a cornerstone of a professional industry and our work with professionals in this area aims to support the maintenance and raising of standards across the board, drawing on insights from our research and consultancy work. This is reflected in our latest qualification – the MSc in Dispute Resolution – which is the world’s first Masters programme to be targeted specifically at professionals involved in complaint handling (a distinct form of dispute resolution activity).
Writing in 2010, Professor Dunleavy and his colleagues’ provocative assessment of the UK’s “redress industry” was that it was beset by signs that it provided “a lousy service at a high cost”. While my own assessment would be more positive, there is clearly work to be done to improve standards and the provision of professional education is only one piece in an undoubtedly complex puzzle.
But the time is now right to speed up efforts to develop professionalism in the complaints sector.
Ultimately, good complaint handling provides better public services and fair consumer markets; it is a crucial activity, which affects the everyday lives of consumers and citizens. It is in everyone’s interest to ensure that – in years to come – a consumer can expect the same level of publicly assured professionalism when dealing with a complaint handler as they can when dealing with a lawyer, doctor or accountant. It is time to make this aspiration a reality.
• Chris Gill is programme leader, MSc Dispute Resolution, Queen Margaret University Consumer Insight Centre qmu.ac.uk