A refreshing statement here from Mr Behrens, new Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, courtesy of Shaun Lintern HSJ. There is an acceptance that standards have not been adequate and substantial reform is required to provide an ‘exemplar’ Ombudsman service. So far so good. But missing from this account is how Mr Behrens plans to address the damage done by years of poor performance and rectify matters for those with badly handled but now ‘historic’ cases. Listening and learning is a start but it’s not enough. Action Mr Behrens, action is required to put right the damage caused by the now accepted poor investigation processes. We watch and we wait.
Regulator chief promises new
‘rigour and consistency’
22 August 2017
The new head of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has admitted the regulator still struggles to relate to complaining patients and families, but has pledged to bring “rigour and consistency” to its work.
Rob Behrens took over the ombudsman role in April after Dame Julie Mellor and her deputy Mick Martin were forced to resign. Their departures followed revelations by HSJ that Mr Martin had helped to cover up the sexual harassment of an NHS director and Dame Julie took no action when she was warned about his behaviour.
Whistleblowers at the PHSO had also raised concerns over the management style and “toxic” culture at the ombudsman, which is the final arbiter of complaints against NHS organisations.
Mr Behrens told HSJ the regulator’s recent history had damaged staff morale and led to a loss of confidence and defensiveness, which he was determined to tackle.
He promised to invest in staff training to “professionalise” the handling of complaints and in recent months had personally overseen complex and lengthy complaints, which he accepted took too long to close.
Mr Behrens said: “We still take too long to close cases… and critically, we have not yet found a way of relating to complainants so that we understand their cases and that relationship is key to a good outcome for the process whether or not we find for them.
“The experience of the PHSO is variable; there have been bad experiences but there have also been some excellent experiences and we have to bring a rigour and consistency to what we do to make sure where we act well that is replicated, and where we don’t act so well we address that very quickly, as we ask other bodies to do.”
Mr Behrens, who previously led the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for higher education complaints and was complaints commissioner at the Bar Standards Board, said he was confident the PHSO could be turned around.
He said: “Change had not been handled well in the organisation and this has had an impact on staff morale and one of my earliest challenges has been to talk to everyone in the organisation, to listen to their experience and to take a view about what the way forward is, given the history of the organisation. Some of that history has created a loss of confidence and a defensiveness, which we are addressing and need to turn around.
“I know from the staff surveys what the staff have thought about the leadership of the organisation. [Chief executive] Amanda Campbell and I constitute a new leadership team but this is not something that can be done by two people at the top of an organisation; it has got to be worked through, although the leaders have to set the tone for it. On the basis of what I have seen the executive team has got integrity, skill and a determination to transform this organisation. As long as they show that – and the people who work for them show that – we can move forward.
“I am confident, together with colleagues, we have what it takes to move forward and address the need for this organisation to be an exemplar of ombudsman services not only in the UK but around the world.”
Mr Behrens said in November that the PHSO would hold the first of two annual public meetings bringing together complainants, stakeholders and staff “to discuss the progress of PHSO in a public way. We have never done that before.”
There will also be £300,000 invested in training PHSO staff to help improve complaints handling, despite the ombudsman facing £24m in budget cuts over the next four years.
He said: “We have to professionalise what we do in terms of our investigative process. Amanda and I are jointly united in agreeing that there will be investment at the front end of our organisation, a big training and development programme for all staff, particularly case handlers, to reassure ourselves that we have in place a skilled team to deal with complaints.
“If we don’t do that properly, how can we have moral authority with the bodies in our jurisdiction when we are encouraging them to improve their complaint handling process?”
He added: “This is a great national institution that needs investment and needs to return to the DNA of its ombudsman roots. This is not a fairy tale; this is a big job but the transformation has begun.”