Healthwatch England urge councils to promote a culture of learning from complaints

Local authorities focus on reporting the number of complaints they receive rather than communicating what they are learning. We call for complaints managers to be given more support to help demonstrate how councils respond to feedback from residents.
man and woman at meeting
Complaints can be scary for organisations to deal with, often requiring services to accept that things have not gone according to plan. But they also present a huge opportunity to identify and tackle the root causes, and make sure others don’t have the same negative experience in future.
— Jacob Lant, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Healthwatch England

As part of Quality Matters, a sector-wide commitment to improving social care, we have committed to helping foster a culture of learning from feedback and complaints in care services.

To support this work, we did some investigation into how local authorities in England are learning from complaints by looking into their annual complaints report.  

What we found

Initially we looked at how easy the complaints reports were to access. Of 152 local authorities only 55 reports were made publicly available in 2017/18, compared with 72 the previous year.

We found that the reports focused on counting the number of complaints rather than identifying why complaints were being made, the frequency of specific or common complaints and how to achieve a resolution.

We found a lack of consistency in approach, making it impossible to understand national trends or learn from comparisons between councils.

Our findings suggest that councils are not currently making the most of annual complaints reports as an opportunity to demonstrate how responsive they are to feedback.

Five ways local authorities can promote a learning culture in complaints management

  1. Be transparent
    We were able to locate only 55 out of 152 complaints reports. While regulations do not require local authorities to publish their complaints reports online, we believe local authorities should publish them in the interest of openness and transparency, as well as to maximise learning opportunities.
  2. Work towards standardisation across councils
    We support the National Complaints Managers Group’s efforts to develop a common taxonomy for complaints about social care. Without this, meaningful comparisons, identification of trends and national learning will be limited.
  3. Remember what reports are for
    Local authorities should focus on improving people’s experiences rather than counting complaints. Shared learning may also save local authorities money by helping to get services right the first time.
  4. Think about how health and social care structures are changing
    We would like to see increased collaboration around complaints across health and social care. Local authorities should work with the NHS at an STP/ICS level to ensure shared learning and consider producing a joint annual report on learning from complaints.
  5. Work with your local Healthwatch
    Complaints reports should be shared with stakeholders, including local Healthwatch, so that organisations can understand and respond to the feedback given about local services.

Take a look at our toolkit designed to help local Healthwatch scrutinise local complaints systems, make recommendations based on findings and follow through on the improvements they ask for.

John’s Story – the impact of not listening to complaints

After John’s mother had a stroke, she required 24-hour nursing care. But the care home was unable to meet her multiple health needs, and unsuitable equipment meant she was unable to live in a dignified way. Like many people, John’s mother lived her final years at the nursing home, and the poor quality of care provided made her experience – and that of her family – very distressing.  

Unhappy with how his mother was treated, John raised his concerns with the care home, but didn’t get a response to his questions. Deciding to take the issue further, John contacted his local MP, who agreed to bring his case to the attention of Parliament.

After two parliamentary debates, a response from the Prime Minister and eight years of campaigning, John and his MP spoke with a care minister to discuss his experiences of social care and how it can be improved. He believes what his mother experienced could have been prevented if somebody had listened.

Despite John’s tireless campaigning, he believes his questions have remained unanswered. It’s important that more people do not find themselves in John’s position where they feel their concerns have gone unheard.

What I experienced happens to thousands of families every year. Social care services need to listen to our concerns and make real changes.
— John

Jacob Lant, Head of Policy at Healthwatch England, said:

“Complaints can be scary for organisations to deal with, often requiring services to accept that things have not gone according to plan. But they also present a huge opportunity to identify and tackle the root causes, and make sure others don’t have the same negative experience in future.

“The key to building a transparent and positive culture around complaints is to focus on this story of improvement, highlighting to service users that their feedback matters and that if they speak up it will lead to change.

“We are keen to use this report to support local authority complaint managers in their work, providing them with a catalyst to help foster a culture of learning in every council in England.”

In response to our report, Julie Ogley, President of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) said:

“ADASS welcomes the findings of this Healthwatch report.

“It’s really important to our members that people feel able to raise any concerns and, importantly, that they’re encouraged to do so by everyone involved in care.”

In addition, Kate Terroni, Chief Inspector of Social Care at Care Quality Commission (CQC) said:

“We expect our providers to proactively seek feedback and learn from complaints to ensure that they are providing people with the highest quality of care. The ability to be transparent about complaints and to demonstrate actions taken to improve services is vital.

CQC welcomes this Healthwatch report, along with the examples of best practice from local authorities and we’d encourage all councils to consider the clear recommendations in this report.”

Read the Healthwatch England report

Read the report in full to get a better understanding of how services can benefit from communicating their learning from complaints. The report includes best practice as well as a more in depth look at what we found. 

Read more

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