A report by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman roasts the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) for its poor information provision, poor record keeping and poor complaint handling.
While noting that the DWP is a big department with wide-ranging responsibilities, it also reveals that just over one third of the complaints it received about government bodies in 2007-08 were in respect of this one department (2,574 out of 7,341 total).
The report is full of horror stories such as that of Mr J, wrongly identified as a non-resident parent in October 2003 and then pursued relentlessly for the next four years for child support he did not owe and that the DWP itself agreed he did not owe.
This case among others highlights the good cop/bad cop approach favoured by the DWP. On 20 February 2007 they told Mr J by phone that a debt collection agency had been asked not to take any further action. The next day their solicitors wrote to him, saying that his failure to respond to an earlier letter left no alternative but to take enforcement action.
Even when it accepted that it had acted in error, the Child Support Agency was slow to admit liability and grudging in the compensation it was prepared to offer for four years of disruption.
Then there was Mr D, who came to the attention of the DWP when his National Insurance number was input into their system in error. This case only took two years to resolve – though again, its final resolution was delayed by a bureaucratic quibbling over whether compensation was owed and at what level.
Mr G and Mrs M lost out because Jobcentre Plus did not provide them with adequate information in respect of their claims – and then failed to deal with their complaint adequately. One individual missed out on £28,000 of support payments.
Yet another CSA complainant found his woes compounded when that agency sent his payroll details to a third party by mistake. (The one thing it did then manage to achieve was to report itself promptly to the Information Commissioner.)
And so it goes on. If you are of a pessimistic bent, this report is probably not for you, as it confirms beyond a shadow of a doubt that the civil service is staffed by incompetent and uncaring bureaucrats - but such a conclusion would be a little unfair.
The report highlights a number of individual cases in order to draw attention to specific failings. It seems likely that it will focus on some of the more dramatic failings within the system and as the report says: "serving as they do over 20 million customers at any one time... it is understandable that mistakes will happen. In fact, it is inevitable."
A spokeswoman for the DWP told us: "The cases that reach the Ombudsman are the most intractable and difficult. The fact that they remain unresolved is an indication of their complexity and it is therefore unsurprising that they take a great deal of time to resolve."
This is fair comment, although it also reminds us that the vast majority of complaints - some undoubtedly as serious as the ones listed here - go through other routes, including the DWP’s own procedures, MPs and lawyers.
At the end of the day, the key question is whether there are any systemic learnings to be had and whether they are taken on board and acted upon.
Highlighting the fact that speed and focus are core issues, Ombudsman Ann Abraham comments: "Many but by no means all of the complaints I received could have been resolved much sooner and by the DWP themselves, if their complaint handling had been more customer-focused."
The DWP responded: "We take the Parliamentary Ombudsmen’s Digest extremely seriously and have taken actions to implement the recommendations made in each case.
"The content of the Ombudsmen's reports are shared both within the Agencies and, where appropriate, more widely within the Department to ensure lessons are learned and changes are made where necessary.
"The Department is developing systems to capture any Customer Insight it can and this includes feedback from complaints - particularly those more difficult to resolve complaints that reach our Independent Case Examiner or the Ombudsman."
As the Ombudsman’s office further added: "Less than a handful of bodies in jurisdiction fail to comply with our recommendations each year."
This suggests that public bodies do take notice when it comes to individual complaints. Whether they are quite so good at identifying and responding to systemic failures is a separate issue; no doubt next year’s report will provide further insight. ®