I began my new role as Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman in early April this year, after ten years as an ombudsman in legal services and then higher education.
I join a national institution, now 50 years old, relied upon hugely by people who use the health service and government departments when they believe they have received poor public service. Helping people to get redress and public organisations to improve is what an ombudsman does, and it is rewarding to help resolve conflict.
I have been asked if being at PHSO is similar to my previous roles. The general principles of being an ombudsman – independence, transparency, confidentiality and informality – hold firm, but there are important differences.
One is that PHSO has a strong, unambiguous legislative mandate. Another is that, as Health Service Ombudsman, I can look at clinical judgements whereas academic judgements were beyond the remit of the OIA (higher education ombudsman). This adds a further dimension to the many challenges ahead, not least because many complainants have lost loved ones.
I am joining the office at a time of change and transformation, and the possibility of securing a revised mandate, which would see PHSO coming together with the Local Government Ombudsman to create a single, modern and more accessible Public Service Ombudsman.
Like other ombudsman services, we are being asked to resolve cases more speedily and flexibly with lower costs and with service standards that guarantee complainants’ involvement. Our new Service Charter is an important benchmark in this process. The dilemma for all ombudsman offices is the close link between people who use our service gaining the outcome they want, and their judgement of the complaint service they have received. I have examined this issue in my recent monograph, Being an Ombudsman in Higher Education (European Network of Ombudsmen in Higher Education, www.enohe.net).
In a world of financial restraint on health and public services, all ombudsman services are under both intense pressure and public scrutiny. In these circumstances, networking with sister ombudsman services is a very high priority. Wheels are meant for rolling, not reinventing, and complaints are meant for resolution with impartiality and without fear or favour.