The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman is an organisation that considers complaints from ordinary citizens about all manner of public services from the implementation of Free Personal Care policy to care and treatment in hospital with even neighbourhood disputes considered. Last year, the organisation determined just over 1,800 complaints, and dealt with almost 2,400 enquiries.
The SPSO was set up in 2002, after an extensive Scottish Executive consultation process that concluded that the most appropriate Ombudsman service for post-devolution Scotland was a ‘one-stop-shop’. The SPSO Act (2002) merged the offices of the former Public Services Ombudsmen in Scotland and its remit was expanded to include new areas of jurisdiction (Mental Welfare Commission, the Enterprise Network, and Further and Higher Education). The SPSO, therefore, can consider complaints about councils, the NHS, housing associations, Scottish public bodies, universities and colleges, the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body and the Scottish Executive and its agencies and Non Departmental Public Bodies.
There’s no such thing as a typical day for the Ombudsman, Professor Brown. She is involved in day-to-day casework to the extent that her expertise is required when there are complex issues to examine or difficult judgements to be made. A former Professor of Politics and Vice Principal of Edinburgh University and co-director of the University’s Institute of Governance, she was a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and is currently a member of the Scottish Committee of the Council on Tribunals.
An immersion in administrative justice informs the Ombudsman’s rulings on individual complaints, but an important part of her work lies elsewhere – in ensuring that the outcomes of her investigations into complaints are used to drive improvement in the delivery of public services.
She does this by widely disseminating the conclusions of Investigation Reports. Around 17% of investigated complaints are laid before the Scottish Parliament as Reports. These are public documents and are posted on the SPSO’s website. A monthly newsletter summarising the Reports is emailed to over 1,100 interested parties, including bodies under the SPSO’s jurisdiction, MSPs and Ministers, advocacy and voluntary organisations and the press. The Ombudsman’s Commentary is a channel through which Professor Brown highlights trends and issues, shares best practice in complaint handling and draws attention to areas that require improvement.
The Ombudsman has a busy programme of Outreach activities, in which she meets policy-makers and legislators, and gives presentations to organisations under her remit and to the general public. She is backed up in this external work by three part-time Deputy Ombudsmen who with her raise awareness of the SPSO’s place in the complaint handling landscape and the contribution it tries to make to improving the delivery of public services.