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Public service markets: Putting things right when they go wrong

Over 10 million people who used public services (approximately 1 in 5) in the UK last year faced problems when using those services, according to today’s report from the National Audit Office. The problems ranged from fairly straightforward issues, such as types of food in care homes, to serious and life-threatening safeguarding issues.

The NAO estimates that, in 2014, 320,000 social care users (some 25%) had service problems in social care, with the most prominent issues being poor quality of service, communications and service management. And around 10% of childcare users faced problems including poor-quality advice, safety concerns and poor service quality.

Today’s report says that consumers find the complaints and redress system confusing, that they have to deal with many different organizations, and that they have a low awareness of which ones to turn to. There are several areas with no formal route to seek independent redress, such as complaints about academies.

Consumers are much less likely to complain about a public service than a private service – almost half of users who experience problems do not complain. The main reasons they do not complain about public services are that they do not think it will be worth the effort (35%), or they think nothing can be done (35%). Only 31% of public service complainants were satisfied with the outcome of their complaint.

The NAO reports that system-wide improvements are inhibited by poor central leadership. Responsibility for different parts of the system sit with different parts of central and local government, each with different governance and accountability arrangements. Parliament has recently reported on the need for better complaint systems to improve public services, and many stakeholders the NAO met during its review accepted the need for improvements.

Public service organizations do not make enough use of complaints to improve services and there are serious impediments to doing so. There is no standard approach to recording or reporting on complaints. Despite some examples of good practice, data sharing is irregular and informal.

Amongst the NAO’s recommendations is that the Cabinet Office, which oversees public service reform working in partnership with other government departments, should nominate an authority within government to manage reforms to the complaints and redress system.

Over many years, government has established independent ombudsman and complaints bodies in various parts of the public sector, each with different legislative provisions, protocols and powers.

“At present, the complaints and redress system in the public sector cannot be regarded as good value for money. Effective consumer and redress systems allow providers to be held accountable, improve quality and identify failure and malpractice. Many users have problems with public services, and serious detriment can and does occur. If government took the power of redress to improve public services seriously, it would recognize that the present system is incoherent and dissatisfying to users and would show urgency in reforming and rationalizing the system.”

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office

Notes for Editors

Users had a problem using a public service in 2014

Of users who experienced a problem did not complain


Of complainants spend more than a year trying to resolve their problem with a local authority, care provider or school before complaining to an ombudsman

£6.2 billion

Public spending on personal budgets and early years education, 2013-14


Social care users had service problems in 2014 (25% of all users), of which 240,000 did not satisfactorily resolve their problem

Proportion of childcare users who experienced service problems in 2014

Proportion of users who had a problem but did not complain as they felt it would not be worth the effort

Proportion of councils who don’t provide any advocacy or support service for users looking to complain about the quality of care they receive


Total cost of the public sector complaints and redress system

£48.5 million

To run the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) in 2013-14

1. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website, which is at the Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.

2. The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Sir Amyas Morse KCB, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO, which employs some 810 people. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether departments and the bodies they fund have used their resources efficiently, effectively, and with economy. Our studies evaluate the value for money of public spending, nationally and locally. Our recommendations and reports on good practice help government improve public services, and our work led to audited savings of £1.15 billion in 2014.

PN: 29/15