Superwoman in a 'man's' world

ALICE Brown has spent a lifetime advancing the cause of women. In both academia and politics, she has been a champion of gender equality. It is, therefore, ironic that Professor Brown has become Scotland's Ombudsman. Not Ombudswoman. Or even Ombudsperson, clunkingly horrible as such a title might be.

The irony is not lost on Brown herself, a former Professor of Politics at Edinburgh University who helped Labour get more women into the Scottish parliament. And although it is something she has clearly thought about in the two-and-a-half years she has been the first holder of her post, she can also laugh about it. As she sits in the New Town office in Edinburgh which she and her small staff of ombuds - the Swedish term - occupy, she chuckles.

"I think that's quite funny. It was debated in parliament, what the post should be called. You will recognise the particular irony given my interest in equality in making sure there were as many women in the parliament as possible. I don't mind. I think at the end of the day, it's what I do that matters."

What Brown does is to encourage the normally shy and reticent Scots to complain. Complaining, in Brown's view, is a good thing. And we should do more of it. Not complaining for the sake of complaining but complaining because, as consumers, we all have a right to expect proper treatment from our public services. And it is complaining with a purpose because the public, in asserting their rights to seek redress if they have been badly treated, can contribute to establishing a "new culture" in public services where people are properly treated rather than ignored.

The post of Scottish Public Services Ombudsman was created by an Act of the Scottish Parliament in 2002. The idea, endorsed by Holyrood, was to put in place a modern complaints service based on the devolution principles of "power-sharing, accountability, access and participation, and equal opportunities".

Pre-devolution, there had been a confusing mix of various ombudspeople and complaints mechanisms.There were three ombudsmen covering four areas of the public service - health and parliamentary, local government and housing. Holyrood decided that what people needed was a "one-stop-shop" for members of the public making complaints.

The new service merged the three previous bodies and took on additional areas of jurisdiction in mental health and the enterprise network. Further education and higher education come under their wing in October.

The Ombudsman can also hear complaints about a vast range of other public bodies, ranging from the well known such as the National Galleries or the National Consumer Council to the less well known. Who will want to complain about the British Potato Council or the Home Grown Cereals Authority? If anyone wants to, Brown is your (ombuds) man.

Brown and her team received nearly 2,400 complains last year. They get the most on local authority planning cases. After that comes NHS clinical treatment, housing repairs and improvement, council tax, housing applications, neighbourhood disputes, other planning matters, social work, legal matters in councils and roads.

When someone takes out a complaint, the first thing Brown and her team do is to try to ensure that the body concerned resolves the matter itself. If it does not resolve the matter, then a formal inquiry takes place and, after looking at all the evidence - they have power to demand information - they make a judgment.

Their formal sanctions are mainly the power to publish their findings, although they cannot normally name the people who complain.

A recent report on the diagnosis of a woman's cancer at Hairmyres Hospital, Lanarkshire, found "wholly unacceptable delays". Brown also criticised several aspects of nursing care and upheld a complaint about the dirty condition of one of the rooms in which the woman was nursed. The result has been public criticism of the hospital by Andy Kerr, the health minister, and a promise from the health board that matters will improve. A result.

As well as the day-to-day reports, the Ombudsman's office can, if it so wishes, issue a "special report" to parliament into an organisation, the equivalent of "naming and shaming". They have, so far, not had to do so.

Brown explains her role. "The fundamental point is for the ombudsman to be impartial and independent of the bodies under my jurisdiction. I am not an advocate for the people, as some of my colleagues are in places like Spain for example."

The Scottish and UK tradition, Brown says, is one of being there to make judgements based on the evidence they get from those who complain and the body that has been complained about.

And she is anxious that people do complain to allow these bodies to become used to complains and so they improve their services as a result. Complains can, she believes, be looked at as "free market research" - a way for bodies to learn from their mistakes.

All the research shows, she says, that the way an organisation deals with a complaint is crucial. If they admit their mistake and deal with it, then their customers will generally be satisfied.

"In that sense, the public sector can learn from the private sector. Organisations such as Tesco know how to handle complaints because they know it is crucial for their market share to respond in a way that resolves the issue."

Brown argues that what matters for people, even in tragic circumstances such as, perhaps, the death of a child in hospital, is that there is at least an explanation of what went wrong, an acknowledgement of that, and the assurance that the same thing will not happen again, that others will not have to go through what those who complained have gone through.

And, yes, that great philosopher of pop can come in useful in explanation. "You know that Elton John lyric, 'Sorry seems to be the hardest word'. It is, people find it very difficult to say sorry. We all find it difficult to admit we've made mistakes. We have to acknowledge that things go wrong in life, it is what we do when things go wrong that matters."