The Department of Health’s new system for handling complaints about adult social care services aims to secure a first on two fronts.
Not only does it mean there will be a single process to deal with both health and social care-related complaints but the new legislation promises to deliver a more customer-focused approach.
The new two-tier system, which comes into effect from April 1, has been heralded as a breakaway from the “bureaucratic” current three-tier system which has drawn criticism for being too process driven.
David Behan, director-general, social care, local government and care partnerships, says one of the strengths of the new system is its simplicity as well as the increased flexibility it offers to organisations when handling complaints.
First and foremost, he says, the introduction of a single complaint route removes the difficulties many people claim they encounter navigating separate complaint systems for health and social services.
“We made a commitment in 2006 to deliver an integrated system and we feel that it will be much easier for everyone to use,” he says.
Behan believes the present system falls down because it is “fragmented” and far from “person-centred”. “There’s also not enough emphasis on putting things right,” he adds.
He says the latter problem will be tackled through a new approach of “listening and learning” and encouraging a cultural shift where people’s experiences will be used to make services more effective.
“You can regard the complaints system as free intelligence about how good your services are,” he says. “Only by listening and learning about what people tell us can we ensure that services will improve.”
Since last year 90 early adopter organisations across England have been trialling the new system which requires health and social care professionals to work together in the case of a joint complaint.
According to DH guidance, organisations need to consider a number of factors such as the severity and relevance of the complaint, before appointing a lead organisation to respond to the complainant.
While Behan believes there has been evidence of good practice in terms of protocol development between health and social care departments, he says organisations need to be realistic about the practicalities of employing such protocols.
“There obviously needs to be agreement between organisations and we hope we wouldn’t see a situation where two organisations were unable to agree about how to deal with a complaint.”
Behan counters recent criticism from the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services which claimed councils had been given too little time to prepare for the changes and not enough practical advice had been issued for complaint handlers.
“We are clear this is an issue we have been wanting to pursue for a long time,” he says. “This is a system that is less rule bound which does not fit in with publishing lots and lots of guidance – this is the cultural shift we are after.”
Behan says for some organisations achieving a change in culture will formalise the good practice that has already been in place while, for others, it will require more significant reforms.
The Birmingham experience
For Birmingham Council, one of the pilot sites, implementing the new complaints system built on the work they were already doing.
John Hagans, the council’s customer relations manager for adult social care, says his department had held mediation meetings and face-to-face interviews with carers and service users which made it easier to introduce the system.
“The new approach had been on the agenda of the West Midlands Complaints Officer Group for a long time so there was a lot of discussion about the new regulations,” he says.
Hagan says the biggest obstacle in adopting the new system was finding the additional funding to implement the new procedures as well as the cost of staff training and resources.
His advice for other organisations looking to make a smooth transition is to keep things clear and simple. “Pull together a project plan with clear timescales and realistic aims and objectives and keep your procedures, leaflets and posters simple using plain English,” he says.
Hagans also advises sending out regular updates to staff at all levels explaining the rationale behind the new approach.
“Selling the benefits to staff will result in better customer satisfaction, earlier resolution and improved customer care,” he says.