It was a week of promises. The Scots were being offered a listening ear from Westminster and the promise of political reform. ‘We are hearing you,’ was the message as the near-miss Scottish bid for independence shook those in power out of their usual stupor.
Similarly there were promises on the table at PHSO when I went to visit Mr. Martin, the new(ish) Managing Director. Do not be fooled by his casual appearance in this photo. Mr. Martin is a force for change.
He was ‘Quality and Service Integrity Director’ at The Post Office from 2009 – 2011. Integrity is something he will need in spades if he is to persuade the public that the Ombudsman can change its spots. But high up the list of his top skills are ‘customer service’ and ‘change management’ giving him all the credentials he needs to drag PHSO into the modern age of customer focus.
I first met Mr. Martin at the Pressure Group seminar in June. He concluded that meeting with his own thoughts from the day and convinced me then that he was a different animal to the run of the mill, shut you down, no action required, PHSO employee. In fact I was impressed by all the management staff who listened attentively that day. They listened, they talked among themselves and now, three months later. we were to hear the outcome of their deliberations.
We sat in his office in Millbank Tower. If there was a view of the Thames it was obscured by the array of coloured post-it notes which dotted every available space in the room. Red for action, green for consideration and yellow for …. joy? There was no doubt that he had his work cut out. He informed me that PHSO were changing, were listening and responding. There was to be no more shut down for dissatisfied customers. On-going customer care at the post-review stage would put an end to the ‘no acknowledgement required’ rubber stamp. This was a very positive start I thought. But can he deliver?
Previous meetings with management at PHSO have led me to believe that senior staff share a collective delusion that all problems were in the past, all criticism can be countered by data and the simple act of investigating more cases will make everyone happy. Happy customers, happy staff and happy politicians. A bit like the pigs on Animal Farm they have become detached from the hard daily grind and partake of ethereal discussions using management speak. If Mr. Martin is to achieve his objective of modernising this service he will have to start by removing those blinkers.
The staff survey should have given them a bit of a clue that things aren’t working. Trust in management appears to be at an all-time low. They have a staff turn-over rate of 21% which must affect both speed and quality of investigations.
The Health Select Committee is due to report soon on their inquiry into NHS complaint handling and hot on their heels the Cabinet Office will deliver government proposals into changes to the Ombudsman landscape. It would appear that PHSO is under pressure from all sides. So what did Mr. Martin offer as a way forward? He offered to listen.
Members of the Pressure Group do indeed hold the gold-dust of experience. We know what it feels like to go through the sausage machine of the PHSO process and emerge mangled and bruised on the other side. We know what went wrong and what is needed to put it right. To all of this Mr. Martin will listen, then no doubt construct more post-it notes. He won’t get it all right and he won’t do it all straight away. However, I believe that he is a man of integrity and I am happy to take the olive branch of continued dialogue with a willingness for us to work together to improve this service for those who receive it and those who deliver it. I’ll even bring my own post-its.