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Under Pressure – the impact of the changing environment on local government complaints

Over the last decade local government has gone through the most intense period of change in a generation.

Significant budget reductions, changing demand on services, and technological advances have required councils to adapt how they provide services. Councils are not only completely restructuring how services are delivered, most have had to ask themselves tough questions to strike the balance between the things they would like to do, and those they must.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has been here throughout, investigating complaints and putting things right where individuals have suffered as a result of mistakes. At the heart of this report is a series of real world case examples highlighting where we have seen things go wrong.

While change is necessary, and can be a catalyst for making improvements, in the cases we investigate we have seen instances where the way major change has been managed has been at the centre of the injustice found.

It is important to note that we look at the current climate through the lens of complaints and the experiences of people who have been let down. Most people receive good services from their council, despite the significant pressures authorities are under. We also recognise the level of financial constraint placed upon councils.

For example, the National Audit Office (NAO) in a recent report concluded that funding for local government has been reduced substantially while pressures on councils have been exacerbated by growing demand for services.

This report is the culmination of research into our casework to identify the common themes where change can contribute towards service failure. It presents four key areas that councils can particularly look out for when carrying out change work. Each area incorporates a number of learning points, demonstrated by case studies from our complaints.

They are:

  • Accommodating longer backlogs
  • Reviewing eligibility criteria
  • Using new partnerships and delivery arrangements
  • Restructuring and redesigning services

This report doesn’t claim to have all the answers to the problems. In the context of the vast range of services local authorities provide, we know that a relatively small number of complaints are brought to us. Nevertheless, we hope this report can help authorities. Firstly, by being a useful aide memoire when planning any major change projects. In particular, we hope this is helpful to chief executives and monitoring officers in ensuring sound corporate governance is maintained during periods of transformation.

Secondly, it helps councils harness the learning from our investigations to improve services for local people. There are suggested questions to pose, especially to help leaders and elected members provide the challenge to make sure successful change happens, without adverse impacts and unforeseen negative consequences.

This report also confirms our approach to taking account of change and resource pressures when investigating individual complaints. While we understand the challenges councils are experiencing, and realise that change and restructure can explain some service failures, it cannot excuse them. We cannot make concessions for failures attributed to budget pressures; we must continue to judge authorities in line with relevant legislation, standards, guidance and their own policies.

Given that providing local services increasingly comes from complex partnership models, it is also unsurprising we are increasingly using our powers to hold councils accountable for the actions of contractors, and other private, public and voluntary organisations, providing services on their behalf. It is clear from our investigations that the need for councils to maintain clear oversight and establish strong governance arrangements over external partners has never been greater.

This report also helps to set out our approach to looking at change and improvement when making our recommendations to put things right. We are increasingly having to probe whether service failures in individual cases point to policies and practices that could be improved. If we find others have, or could have been affected, we will recommend reviews of cases and policy. Only by doing this can we maximise the learning opportunities from our investigations for the benefit of all authorities.

Alongside this report we are also launching our revised Principles of Good Administrative Practice. We have done this in consultation with the sector, and this provides the framework against which we will continue to hold bodies in our jurisdiction to account.

Ultimately, the message is clear – don’t throw out the rule book when working under pressure. The basic principles of good administration are more important than ever when undergoing momentous change and breaking new ground. As respected former chief executive Max Caller CBE said, in a recent best value report: “In local government there is no substitute for doing boring really well. Only when you have a solid foundation can you innovate.”