June 2016 – The First 6 months
The end of June marks the completion of the first 6 months of the new Service complaints system and my Office. I thought that it would be appropriate to use my June blog to tell you about the work of my office in that time and what I hope the next 6 months will bring.
We have now reached the midway point in the first year of the new system. These past 6 months have been an exceptionally busy time for my office as we moved from the planning of the new system to doing the actual work! Although it is still too early to give you any conclusive report on whether the reformed system is efficient, effective or fair, it provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on how the new system is operating and what has been achieved so far.
Since 1st January my office has logged over 450 contacts. This means that we have been contacted about 450 potential cases for referral or investigation. To put this in perspective, the 500 contacts we have logged represents an 80% increase on the number of contacts received by the former Service Complaints Commissioner at the same point last year. Of those contacts, 80% have resulted in formal applications requesting I use my powers.
What do these numbers mean? Even at this early stage I believe the numbers support the need and desire for independent oversight of the system. Roughly half of the contacts we receive are requests for investigation – an average of 7 such requests each week. Most of these relate to reviews of gateway decisions or allegations of some form of undue delay in the handling of a complaint. Roughly 75% of these applications go on to be accepted for investigation and around two-thirds of investigations to date have been upheld in favour of the complainant. It is too early to say that these statistics will be representative of our first year and I expect to see subtle shifts as more applications are received and more investigations are conducted by my office. What will remain consistent is that each investigation, whether it is ultimately upheld or not, will provide an opportunity to reassure individuals that in my independent and impartial role, I will shine a light on where things may have gone wrong and make recommendations for change.
This consistency is important as it is vital that Armed Forces personnel have confidence in their complaints system. Historically this has been an issue as reported through the Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey (AFCAS). While the most recent report only covers 2 months of the new system it tells us that there is still work to be done in this area. Overall, the majority of individuals who made a complaint remain dissatisfied with the process – 54% due to the outcome of the complaint and 60% due to the time taken to resolve the complaint. What also remains a concern is the number of personnel who do not make a Service complaint when they are wronged. Of concern is the figure showing that 9% of Armed Forces personnel who report having experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination state that they did not make a Service complaint about their treatment. While a small percentage reported that the matter was dealt with by an alternative method (informal resolution/mediation) over 40% reported that they didn’t make a complaint as they felt that nothing would be done and just under 40% felt that it would have a negative impact on their career. This is an issue that can’t be ignored. It simply isn’t good enough that any percentage of Armed Forces personnel feel that they can’t make a Service complaint for any reason.
As the majority of the reporting period covered the old system, the impact of the reforms on confidence levels won’t be known until future AFCAS reports are published. However I believe that the work my office has done over the past 6 months has already gone some way to raise confidence in the system and this has been evidenced in some of the feedback we have received.
As we move into the second half of the year we will begin to see more requests for investigations into alleged maladministration and requests to investigate the substance of Service complaints once they have exhausted the internal Service complaints process. I firmly believe that the independent and impartial manner in which they will be handled can only lead to a further increase in the confidence that people have in the oversight mechanism and that and that at this point next year Armed Forces personnel are much more confident in the system as a whole.
 A gateway decision is any decision that determines whether a complaint is admissible as a Service complaint or whether an appeal can be accepted for further decision.