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How many staff does it take to investigate complaints?

Investigations folders

No, it isn’t the start of a good joke! The question of whether an organisation has enough staff to deliver their core objectives is one that is common to most sectors, including the ombudsman community. As many of you will have seen from our recent communications, including the Annual Report, we don’t currently have enough staff to meet our published time targets. While this is an issue we are working to rectify as quickly as we can, I thought I would use my second blog this month to explore this issue further.

The question of sufficient staffing is important to all organisations in all sectors, including the Ombuds community. In order to achieve core objectives and deliver a quality service – organisations need enough staff. In order to ensure the wellbeing of staff and that they aren’t carrying unmanageable workloads, organisations need more than just enough staff while not having too many staff. Too many staff might sound like a positive, but in reality it results in there being not enough work to go around and, ultimately, positions being cut which is bad for morale. It can be hard to get the balance right, and it can take time, but it is essential.

When the Office of the Service Complaints Ombudsman (OSCO) was being set up, a lot of consideration was given to what the structure of the office should be and how many staff would be needed. Although the OSCO replaced the former Office of the Service Complaints Commissioner (OSCC), my role and office have far greater powers. This means it wasn’t a like for like replacement.

In the transition year a lot of work was done on researching the structure and set up of other Ombuds institutions – those that were specific to the Armed Forces and also those that specialised in other areas. In addition, there was a great deal of time spent forecasting how many enquiries and applications were likely to be made; how long it would take to process them end to end and how many staff would be required to achieve this. Last minute changes to the draft bill gave me additional powers that amendments were made to our organisational structure and staffing requirements to accommodate this.

I was confident that we had done the best we could to ensure we had the resources we needed to handle the expected workload. However, the actual workload exceeded what we expected – both in terms of volume and complexity. On top of this, our operational team hasn’t been at full complement since we opened and throughout most of 2017 was at 50% capacity. The impact of this is that we haven’t been able to meet our published time targets for investigations.

We have been doing everything in our power to try and remedy this. To date we have:

  • Restructured to provide more support to the operational team.
  • Reviewed our investigations processes to remove any unnecessary steps and are now doing a further review to determine if and how we can work more efficiently.
  • Established a flexible resource of 5 fee earning investigators that we can call on as and when needed
  • Progressed recruitment action to fill the outstanding permanent vacancies,
  • Reviewed reviewing our structure to determine if we need more investigators on a temporary/permanent basis.

While the delay in our ability to meet our time targets to date disappoints me, I have a duty of care to ensure that no harm is caused to my staff from dealing with excessive workloads. I also have a duty to those who come to my office to ensure that the quality of our investigations does not suffer.

It is essential that the independent and impartial office that provides oversight of the Service complaints system is not beset by the same delays as the system it oversees. Service personnel must have confidence in what we do, in order to trust that the Service complaints system is improving under our watch. Ensuring that we have adequate staff to complete investigations on time and processes to ensure that we are working efficiently are among our top priorities.

Update June 2018 – We are pleased to announce that our new Head of Investigations and a new Senior Investigator started at the OSCO last month. Recruitment to fill the additional vacancies is ongoing.