Accountability means much more than process

If ‘education, education, education’ was Labour’s mantra, then the coalition is talking ‘accountability, accountability, accountability.’

The Open Public Services white paper provides some music to my ears on accountability, describing the fifth principle of open public services as ‘the need to be responsive to the people they serve, held to account by citizens and their elected representatives.’

For the public sector to be serious about creating better places in which people can live and work, it needs to realise accountability is about more than mere process. The white paper suggests new frameworks will examine whether failure on the part of a public authority or service to provide the choice to which an individual has a right, will constitute a form of maladministration. The role of the three public service Ombudsmen will be expanded accordingly to play a greater part in supporting individuals ‘to exercise choice in specific services.’

Yet, surely, accountability is about more than frameworks. If you’re a housing association providing decent homes for people and have a reputation to manage, why on earth would you let a complaint or dispute get as far as the Ombudsman? If you are in a contract, why would you let a contractual dispute go to court? To do so, suggests you have been far too process driven (doing the ‘right’ paperwork) and not taking a commonsense approach on behalf of those to whom you’re accountable.

Be it a dispute with a tenant, leaseholder, local authority or maintenance contractor over issues like housing disrepair or a contract, you can ill afford to prolong a dispute until it arrives on an Ombudsman’s desk or in court. Not only is the whole procedure a drain on resources (both in terms of finance and time that could be spent elsewhere on more core activity) but it also impacts on one of your most precious resources – corporate reputation.

If an Ombudsman or court makes a finding against your organisation, this will eventually be made public and could lead to your case becoming a ‘precedent’ which is taken into account by other organisations.

To show you are really on the side of residents, tenants and the community, it’s worth considering an alternative approach to dispute resolution and complaints handling. This will show you’re serious about cutting costs in times of austerity, preserving reputations and relationships and avoiding all-round disruption for everyone involved.

Our experience shows a non-adversarial process free approach has the potential to reduce the time and cost of public sector dispute resolution by as much as 80 per cent.

The number of disputes and complaints in the sector can only grow with the rise and rise of procurement (as more people contest the awarding of contracts) and a renewed focus on regeneration will lead to more housing associations and local authorities entering into potential disputes.

Before you settle for process over pragmatism when faced with the next complaint or dispute, bear in mind there are other, better options. As the white paper asserts, public services should be responsive both to the needs and demands of service users but also ‘to the demand for value expected from taxpayers.’ And value and accountability require more than perfect ‘box ticking.’ 


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