One of the essential attributes of a good organisation is an effective system for handling complaints and feedback. An effective complaints system has three key benefits:
- it resolves issues quickly and cost-effectively;
- it increases public/customer confidence in the organisation; and
- it provides information that can drive improvements in service delivery.
The way in which an organisation handles complaints shows how much it values service users and good customer relations. Meeting dissatisfaction with a positive response and using customer feedback to improve service is crucial to any successful organisation. Whether or not a complaint is well founded, dealing with it effectively and empathetically can restore a complainant's confidence in the organisation.
To support the provision of a professional service, engagement with service users should be supported by a simple, accessible, and effective complaints handling process.
The Crown Office and the Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) handle approximately 290,000 reported criminal cases and 9,500 death reports each year. COPFS has a diverse and divergent 'customer base'. While some people have regular, professional contact with the service, for others, such as those bereaved by sudden or unexplained death, such contact is rare and probably unwelcome, occurring at a time of significant personal crisis or distress. All are entitled to expect COPFS to deliver on its organisational values - being professional and showing respect - in their dealings with the Service.
The aim of this inspection was to review and assess the effectiveness of COPFS complaints procedure having particular regard to:
- The effectiveness of the complaints procedure;
- Whether information about how to make a complaint is clear, easily available and accessible;
- The quality of responses to complaints, including whether complainants are responded to promptly and fairly and receive replies that address relevant issues thoroughly and are written in a way that is easy to understand;
- The governance structures in COPFS, including proper escalation procedures and an independent element to the investigation; and
- The role and impact of complaints to drive improvements.
Evidence was obtained from a range of sources, including:
- Interviews with key individuals in COPFS;
- Interviews with complaint practitioners from other organisations;
- Open source research of Complaint Handling Models;
- Visit and interviews with the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service (PPSNI);
- Visit and interviews with those responsible for managing complaints systems in other organisations; and
- Examination of 85 complaints received by COPFS in 2014, including all associated correspondence and relevant information from the case file. Each response was measured against a number of indicators. To determine the overall quality we assessed the replies against five criteria:
- Was the reply easy to understand (plain English/avoiding legal jargon)?
- Were all issues raised by the complainer covered in the response?
- Was the reply appropriately empathetic (tailored to the individual, not defensive and, if upheld, was an apology offered)?
- Was the complaint dealt within the published complaints policy time scales and, if not, were delays explained?
- Was the complainer informed of the right to appeal or seek external review?
We would like to thank all those that gave up their time to assist with this inspection and in particular the staff of the Response and Information Unit (RIU) for their open and active participation.
1. A model complaints handling system is efficient, effective, standardised, fair and aims to 'get it right first time'. Whilst the COPFS complaints and feedback process has many attributes of a model complaints policy, we identified a number of features that could add value to the existing policy and provide a more focused complaints system.
2. Overall, we found that the complaints handling staff in the Response and Information Unit (RIU), a national specialist unit that handles complaints and feedback, were helpful and skilled, and that there was a genuine willingness and commitment from the Head of Policy, managers and staff in RIU to improve the complaints handling process.
3. In the majority of cases examined efforts had been made to respond in full to all issues raised and where there was fault or poor service on behalf of COPFS, it was acknowledged, often with an apology. We rated the response from RIU to be excellent or good in 80% of replies. The most common features that detracted from the quality of the response was the use of legal terminology or jargon and a lack of empathy evidenced by being overly defensive, using formulaic paragraphs and failing to provide reassurance.
4. The role that communication plays in complaints handling cannot be overemphasised and the creation of a new post of Head of Engagement and Information combining responsibility for RIU and internal communication is a positive development. Providing helpful, clear information about the role and function of COPFS and getting initial interactions right will minimise the number of customer contacts which escalate into complaints.
5. The largest number of complaints in our review related to prosecutorial decision making. In all cases, we found evidence that the criminal case had been reviewed independently by RIU. This involved considering the case afresh and, if necessary, obtaining additional information. If appropriate, RIU has authority to reverse the initial decision.
6. Only 68% of complaints dealt with by the formal procedure were concluded within the internal target of 20 working days. Delays in obtaining information from local offices contributed to internal timescales not being achieved. In a significant proportion of cases that failed to meet the internal target, complainers were not kept informed of the progress of their complaint.
7. 30% of the complaints examined flowed from a perceived or real lack of service by COPFS. Tackling the underlying causes of complaints is clearly more effective than having to apologise or rectify an issue as a result of a complaint. Critical to improving service delivery is a culture that values complaints and commits to learning from them. While we found commitment from staff in RIU and the Enquiry Point to improving the complaints handling process, there was less evidence of 'buy in' from the wider organisation about the need to learn from complaints and to resolve complaints at the point of service delivery.
8. Other than aspects of customer service delivered at the Valuing and Managing Difference (Equalities) training course, attended by all staff, there is no training programme for frontline staff on handling complaints and customer service.
9. The absence of independent oversight of the effectiveness of COPFS in learning from complaints and identifying trends - such as is provided by the Independent Assessor of Complaints in England, Wales and Northern Ireland - makes it all the more important that COPFS has a robust and transparent self-assessment process to undertake this function.
10. While there is some evidence of complaints influencing policies and procedures, learning from complaints to support improvement and delivery of service is not systematic. There is no register of themes, actions taken, lessons learnt and outcomes.
11. The appointment of a senior prosecutor to 'champion' customer service and COPFS becoming a member of the Institute of Customer Service are positive and welcome developments. The appointment of a 'champion' provides an opportunity to promote a culture focussed on people rather than process, where complaints are valued as a key indicator of customer satisfaction, and as a source of feedback to identify recurrent themes and systematic issues.
- In its revised complaints and feedback policy, COPFS should also include the following:
- reference to COPFS core values - being professional and showing respect;
- reference to COPFS Standards of Service for victims and witnesses;
- diagrammatic representation of the complaints and feedback process, e.g. a flowchart;
- standard complaint form; and
- list of potential remedies/outcomes and a request to the complainant to specify which remedy/outcome they seek, e.g. an explanation or corrective action.
- COPFS should include guidance on the inappropriate use of social media in the unacceptable actions section of the complaints and feedback policy.
- The Response and Information Unit (RIU) should undertake an options appraisal/value for money analysis of their complaints management system and introduce a single system to record, monitor, analyse and manage complaints handling.
- COPFS should review the role of the Area Co-ordinators and issue revised guidance on the use of the complaints management system.
- Complaints and feedback should be a standard item discussed at team briefings.
- RIU should provide feedback to the Operational Boards on the compliance of the offices and Federations to provide information to RIU within internal timescales.
- COPFS should strengthen procedures to ensure that complainants are provided with progress updates in line with COPFS complaints and feedback policy.
- RIU should provide responses in plain English and, in particular, should avoid using legal and procedural jargon without adequate explanation.
- The COPFS Customer Service 'Champion' should embed complaints handling as a key indicator of customer satisfaction and promote organisational learning from complaints.
- COPFS should issue guidance on complaints handling to all staff.
- COPFS should ensure that all staff, who have direct contact with members of the public, complete the Delivering Customer Service courses. The e-learning Delivering Customer Service module should be included as part of the COPFS induction process.
- COPFS should include the complaints handling process as a specific control in the COPFS Risk Register.
- The remits of COPFS Operational Boards should include a specific reference to monitoring and learning from complaints.
- COPFS should introduce a system to record, analyse and report on complaint outcomes, trends and improvement actions.
- COPFS should establish a set of key performance indicators to measure complaints handling performance and drive improvements.