Complaining, Appealing or Just Getting it Sorted Out: complaints procedures for community care service users
The primary aim of this thesis is to consider whether the social work complaints procedure in Scotland is an appropriate means of dealing with dissatisfaction experienced by users of community care services. Debate in the socio-legal literature has focused on different models of justice in grievance and appeal mechanisms for users of public services. Set in the context of this wider debate, this study looks at the operation of the social work complaints procedure in Scotland, focusing on the experiences of complainants in two local authorities. Setting the research in context, the thesis looks at recent policy developments in community care in Scotland, at recent changes to the health complaints procedure and at proposals to change the social work complaints procedure in Scotland, England and Wales. The main source of data is interviews with people who had made complaints in the two local authorities. As well as looking at complainants’ views, the study also considers the views of people responsible for running the complaints procedure in both local authorities. Focus groups with community care service users were used to explore the views of those who may not have used the complaints procedure. A key concern is whether it is possible to distinguish different types of complaints: those which are primarily ‘appeals’ against refusal of services; and those which are about the way that people are treated. Using the experiences of people who had made complaints in both local authorities and a database of all complaints to one local authority, it is shown that it is not easy to make this distinction although some complaints fall more clearly into one category or the other. The classification of complaints relates closely to what people want from a complaints procedure. The purpose of a grievance procedure can be considered in terms of ‘models of justice’. The motivations of complainants and the views of those who operate the procedure are considered in the context of literature on models of justice. The thesis looks at how the complaints procedure operates in each of the two local authorities and considers the relative value of ‘informal’ and ‘formal’ processes. It goes on to look at what happens when people make formal complaints, whether complaints are resolved and what people think about this. Barriers to complaining are also considered. Finally the thesis looks at complaints which reach the end of the complaints procedure - the complaints review committee - and those which reach the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman. The thesis concludes that there is considerable ambiguity as to the purpose of the community care complaints procedure. Some complainants use the procedure as an ‘appeal’ against decisions made by the local authority, while others just want to get their problems ‘sorted out’. Some complainants are, at least in part, attempting to get the local authority to improve services for others. The emphasis of local authority staff in this study is primarily on ensuring that complainants have an opportunity to have their ‘voice’ heard. The word ‘complaining’ itself carries connotations which some service users see as negative, although others are more assertive in their use of the word. In procedural terms there is much that can go wrong between the initial ‘informal’ complaint and the more independent level of the procedure: the complaints review committee. There are considerable problems in defining ‘complaints’ and ensuring that they are handled within the guidelines. This means that it is difficult for justice to be seen to be done.