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A Consumer culture requires the confidence to complain

by Tracey Reilly, CAS Policy Manager (Strong Communities team)

This article was first publlshed in the Herald on 30 September 2020.

Every day millions of us access public services in Scotland. So often in fact that we take them for granted - at least when they work. As long as our taps provide clean drinking water, our bins and recycling are collected and our pensions or other benefits are paid, then our interaction with public services is pretty limited. But what happens when things go wrong or we don’t agree with how these services are run?

Complaining is human nature. It’s what we do when things seem unfair. It’s often seen as negative, and complainers can be characterised as ‘moaners.’ But if we don’t complain, then service providers won’t know things have gone wrong and aren’t able to correct them. All of us, as consumers, are entitled to be heard when our public services don’t get it right.

Earlier this year Citizens Advice Scotland spent some time researching how public services – from energy companies to Local Authorities and the NHS – are held accountable. We explored whether people know how to complain, how confident they were in approaching these services, and what barriers might stop them doing so. We recently published the findings in our report, ‘Holding public services to account in Scotland.’

First the good news. We found that almost three quarters of people in Scotland felt they could access information on public services and half of respondents felt confident that they knew their rights in relation to raising concerns.

However, only a third felt confident about getting involved in a decision-making process and this number fell to under a third when it came to appealing a decision. Those least confident in approaching services were aged under 25, or unemployed. And knowledge of regulatory bodies was poor, with a quarter of respondents having never heard of any.

Our research showed that often people had concerns about services but didn’t take action to express them. These people reported that they didn’t know who to contact or what to say, or feared they wouldn’t be taken seriously. Few people knew what to expect when making a complaint or felt confident they’d know what they could do if they weren’t happy with the response they received.

Listing statistics like this can sound a bit academic. So let’s think about what this means in practice. We’re talking here about often vulnerable people who may have been let down by essential services they rely on: sick and disabled people whose treatment has gone wrong and who don’t know who to turn to; families in poverty who believe their social security has been miscalculated but who can’t get through to anyone at the DWP; and pensioners who can’t afford to put the heating on in winter but are scared to call their energy company and ask for help.

This is not good enough. A consumer society is only worth the name if it truly empowers its citizens, not just as purchasers but as complainers.

That’s not to say that complainers are always right. Service providers deserve fair treatment too. This is where the independent review bodies, like the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman are so important. Their role is to listen to both sides of any dispute and to adjudicate fairly. In addition, organisations like Ofcom and Ofgem play a role in setting appropriate standards of service across our regulated industries such as post, telecoms and energy.

In the end, most complainers will accept a response they disagree with - as long as they feel they have been listened to and treated fairly and with respect. It doesn’t seem like much to ask.

We need to move towards a culture where consumers can confidently seek redress and know that their views will be listened to. I don’t know if you’d call this a ‘Complainers Charter,’ but if you do, its components are simple enough.

Firstly, all public services should provide clear information on how the public can complain or raise concerns. This should be available both on and off-line, in plain English.

Secondly, where people do complain, responses should be clear and timely and should explain how to take things further if the complainer is still unhappy.

And finally, regulators should raise the profile of their work and encourage engagement with the public about their concerns and complaints. By doing this, individuals can not only get redress for their own complaint, but also help expose and eliminate poor service. Doing so helps to ensure that other people don’t experience the same problems and raises standards across the board.

This is not rocket science. These recommendations are pretty basic asks from a consumer perspective, and should be part of the DNA of these public services. The fact that they are not tells us that governments and service providers need to think differently when designing their services in future, and put the consumer/complainer right at their heart.