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Evidence on the Performance of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman

The output of the SPSO is not subject to adequate and effective external scrutiny in regard to the fairness and justice of its rulings, though it does give much attention to its procedures in terms of their speed, politeness and cost.

The SPSO’s external complainant survey, which produced evidence of serious and widespread dissatisfaction, has recently been discontinued.

Accompanying these cover pages are three reports prepared by ‘Accountability Scotland’. Based on the SPSO’s own publications and official statistics, they demonstrate a need for more adequate and effective external scrutiny of the SPSO to ensure transparent public accountability.

Report A analyses two reports produced by Craigforth for the SPSO:

  1. Scottish Public Services Ombudsman: Complainant Survey Results 2009 & 2010.
  2. SPSO Service and Awareness Survey of Bodies Under Jurisdiction, 2009/09.

Report B analyses statistics from the SPSO website (http://www.spso.org.uk/statistics).

Report C is a commentary on the SPSO’s Annual Report 2010-2011. It concerns (1) the lack of accountability of the SPSO and (2) the lack of clarity and informativeness that renders parts of the Annual Report incomprehensible.

The material analysed in reports A and B was available to inform MSPs at the time of Jim Martin’s reappointment as SPSO and the Local Government and Communities committee when they closed the eight public petitions against the SPSO without public discussion (though not without dissent).

However, MSPs do not have the time to analyse detailed statistics, to look at questionnaires and raw data and to read voluminous documents. They should be able to assume that any commissioned report is a clear, objective and accurate statement of facts.

We note in passing that the Ombudsman, like the SPCB, cannot respond adequately to flawed evidence.

The existence of the petitions reflects a widespread and serious concern over the performance of the SPSO that is reflected in the Craigforth statistics and already known to a few MSPs. These statistics reveal considerable dissatisfaction with the SPSO. However, a full, objective and fair analysis of this malaise based on individual case histories, yet to be accomplished, must inevitably be long and detailed. All the more important, therefore, is a dispassionate analysis of official statistics.

Because the Craigforth reports are accepted as authoritative documents, it is essential that they be produced to the standards of scientific papers – based on the fullest available data, checked for errors and lack of clarity.

The Craigforth reports do not match acceptable scientific standards.

The questionnaires sent to complainants by Craigforth elicited many detailed comments relating to dissatisfaction and satisfaction with the SPSO. These responses could have been especially revealing, but it was not in Craigforth’s remit to do more than classify and count these detailed comments; they are reduced just to numbers in the Craigforth report, in the table on page 22 (reproduced in Report A). The information is more obscurely presented than in previous years, but it is evident that 70-77% of the responses in 2010 represented dissatisfaction. (The imprecision in the percentage reflects ambiguity in the table.)

It is regrettable that the written comments were not better utilised. The SPSO quotes four such comments on their website (and the later Annual Report quotes six), but these are all very appreciative, and therefore unrepresentative. They are clearly a public relations gimmick.

SPSO staff are encouraged to form good relationships with bodies under their jurisdiction, such as health boards and local councils. This can be likened to encouraging the police to form friendships with criminals to the detriment of their victims. In other areas this has been shown to bias responses and could be a reason for the very low complainant satisfaction with the impartiality of the SPSO.

Not all complainants can obtain their desired outcome (because of inadequate evidence, limitations in the powers of the SPSO etc). They should, however, end up satisfied that the SPSO has done its best for them. The Craigforth data show this not generally to have been the case (see Report A).

Public access to Craigforth’s ‘December 2010 service user survey results’ appears to have been denied for a period, but has now been reinstated on the SPSO website. A later survey has not been commissioned.