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Fifteen million people’s problems with public service go unreported

26 February 2016

As many as 15 million people who have a poor experience with a public service are not registering the problem as a complaint, a new report from Citizens Advice finds.

The report, Learning from Mistakes, highlights that complaints not only give providers the chance to make amends for the problem but also offer an opportunity to make sure the poor service is not repeated.

As evidence from the national charity highlights, this valuable feedback is being missed because some people are not complaining.

It finds that in the last two years 19.2 million people in England have had a poor experience with a public service, such as HMRC, the DVLA, their GP or local authority, yet only 4.2 million of those went on to make a formal complaint.

Problems with public services can range from administrative mistakes like being sent the wrong form by the DVLA to more serious errors such as HMRC not giving people the right amount in tax credits.

Of the people who have had a poor experience of a public service but not complained, half (52 per cent) don’t think making a complaint would change anything. Whereas another 1 in 5 (19 per cent) fear that they could be treated differently after making a complaint, and others are daunted by making a formal complaint or see the process as too complicated.

Local Citizens Advice in England helped people with 117,000 problems with public services in 2015, up 6 per cent from 110,000 in 2014.

One in ten (13,000) queries about public services are about making a complaint, a 63 per cent rise from 2012 (8,000).

Chief executive of Citizens Advice, Gillian Guy, said:

“Problems people have with public services too often go unreported.

“People are not making a complaint because they find it daunting, are not convinced it will change anything or are worried about the consequences.

“There needs to be a clear and consistent route to registering  complaints formally about public services.

“Public service providers, from the DVLA to local authorities, can learn valuable lessons about how they can improve their service and deal with emerging problems from the complaints people make. They should also look at more informal ways to take on board feedback such as through social media.”

The report finds that some people are using social media to raise a problem, but this feedback is not being used consistently across public services. With one in ten people discussing their poor experience of a public service on social media, rising to one in five 18-24 year olds, providers are missing out on valuable insight from particular groups of people.

The Government has recently outlined its support for the creation of a single Public Service Ombudsman for all public service complaints. To help make this successful, Citizens Advice is recommending the creation of a ‘triage’ system for public service complaints. This would make sure people have just one place to report problems and get guidance on making a complaint at the same time.

The report also highlights that, unlike in some other sectors, the power to make a “super complaint” about public services doesn’t exist. Citizens Advice is calling for it to be made possible for super complaints to be raised on behalf of public service users, as this would help to tackle systemic problems people have with public services.

Notes to editors

  1. Populus interviewed a sample of 1,719 adults resident in England aged 18+ from its online panel between 11-13 December 2015.  Surveys were conducted across the country and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults. Populus is a founder member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Further information at www.populus.co.uk.
  2. Based on 45 per cent of surveyed people saying they had a poor experience with a public service in the last two years and only 22 per cent of those people saying they had made a formal complaint, Citizens Advice estimates that 19.2 million people had a poor experience and 4.2 million of those reported it. This estimate uses the ONS Population Estimate of 42,724,917 people aged 18+ in England.
  3. The Citizens Advice service comprises a network of local Citizens Advice, all of which are independent charities, the Citizens Advice consumer service and national charity Citizens Advice. Together we help people resolve their money, legal and other problems by providing information and advice and by influencing policymakers. For more see the Citizens Advice website.
  4. The advice provided by the Citizens Advice service is free, independent, confidential and impartial, and available to everyone regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, age or nationality.
  5. To get advice online or find your local Citizens Advice in England and Wales, visit citizensadvice.org.uk
  6. You can get consumer advice from the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 04 05 06 or 03454 04 05 05 for Welsh language speakers.
  7. Local Citizens Advice in England and Wales advised 2.5 million clients on 6.2 million problems in 2014/15. For full service statistics see our publication Advice trends.
  8. Citizens Advice service staff are supported by more than 21,000 trained volunteers, working at over 2,500 service outlets across England and Wales.