Chapter Twenty-three - Public sector best practice
23.1 The public's interaction with the police and the dynamics around trust and confidence are very different to those in other public services. Frequently the interaction with the criminal justice system and criminal investigations, as well as the complexity of the complaints arrangements, make complaining about the police more challenging.
23.2 There are significant differences in how the police and other sectors work but when it comes to complaint handling, the broad principles of customer service are common across the private, public and third sectors. There is scope for policing to adopt some of those principles and learn from best practice.
23.3 Some principles apply across the whole of the public sector but the nature of complaints against the police and nature of the circumstances in which they may deal with members of the public make policing unique. Many of the broad principles do apply to some extent and are captured in 'From sanctions to solutions', the statutory guidance on complaints handling for policing organisations issued by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC). It is the PIRC that has the statutory duty of ensuring that the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) and Police Scotland both have suitable arrangements for the handling of relevant complaints.
23.4 The other principal source of expertise available to policing with regard to complaint handling best practice, as it is to all public sector bodies in Scotland, is the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO).
23.5 In Scotland the SPSO is the final stage for complaints about councils, the National Health Service, housing associations, colleges and universities, prisons, most water providers, the Scottish Government and most other Scottish public authorities. If complaints come directly to the SPSO in the first instance they are referred to the appropriate body.
23.6 The SPSO has no locus in respect of complaints against Police Scotland or the Scottish Police Authority but can take complaints about the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC) and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS). The PIRC and COPFS are required to comply with the SPSO's model complaints handling procedures (MCHP) but Police Scotland and the SPA are not.
23.7 The SPSO supports public service organisations in improving their complaints handling practices by providing guidance, resources and training that help public sector organisations in Scotland comply with the relevant model complaint handling procedures. It provides additional advice and support for handling complaints well and learning from them. Model complaints handling procedures offer a consistency of approach to complaints handling across most public services in Scotland. They are laid in the Scottish Parliament and include audit arrangements. The SPSO have the power to make a finding, and also the power to make a direction where complaint handling did not match up to the procedures.
23.8 The SPSO offers support through its support and intervention policy, advice on meaningful apologies, training, e‑learning courses, thematic reports, case studies and a complaints improvement framework. There is additional information about SPSO training that could assist Police Scotland in the Training chapter at page 348.
23.9 The SPSO is also set to become the Independent National Whistleblowing Officer (INWO) for the NHS in Scotland. The implementation date for that has yet to be determined but the SPSO has published National Whistleblowing Standards which set out how the INWO expects all NHS service providers to handle concerns that are raised with them and which meet the definition of a 'whistleblowing concern'.
23.10 In their response to the Review's call for evidence the SPSO stated that in their experience three elements are critical to the success of any complaints process, namely:
- a culture of valuing complaints and willingness to learn from complaints, established by consistent and supportive leadership, with appropriate governance structures in place;
- an emphasis on frontline resolution which is backed up by training and support to empower frontline staff to resolve complaints early; and
- evidence‑based conclusions with fully explained reasoning for findings.
23.11 SPSO also believes that organisations need to actively support their staff through complaints processes and engage staff in positive and purposeful activities to manage and learn from complaints. Getting that right can encourage staff, help drive improvement in services and promote learning.
23.12 The SPSO in their written submission to the Review described Police Scotland's publicly available information as easy to find and setting out what may happen, and noted that there is regular reporting of the subject of complaints made. However, SPSO also told the Review that they could not identify on the Police Scotland website performance data on timescales, time taken to deal with complaints or outcomes, reports on lessons learned, changes made as a result of complaints or any reporting on how those who complained felt about their experience of the process. SPSO found the descriptions of the level of formality and documentation around complaints in 'A guide for complaints about the police' to be potentially intimidating and off‑putting as well as unnecessary for complaints which could be resolved quickly at the frontline.
23.13 The Review met with the Ombudsman in order to gain more insight into public sector complaints processes. She told the Review that quality assurance should be designed into the complaint handling procedures and that learning lessons, identifying systemic issues and rectifying them were the best way for an organisation to improve. That improvement cycle should be supported by training, support and advice.
23.14 Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority are not governed by the SPSO's model complaint handling procedures but there is scope for the two organisations to learn from them and from other guidance produced by the SPSO. For example, the SPSO has produced very useful internal guidance for SPSO staff on interaction with complainers with vulnerabilities and has shared this on their website as a practice example for all public service organisations. The guidance emphasises that organisations should be mindful of a complainer's vulnerabilities, that types and levels of vulnerability can vary from person to person and that they may be influenced by situational circumstances linked to the complaint. I comment further on this subject in the Accessibility and communication chapter at page 282.
23.15 The SPSO should be regarded by Police Scotland, the SPA and by PIRC as a centre of expertise and used as a valuable source of advice and guidance. I recommend that acting jointly, the three organisations seek an early opportunity to engage with the SPSO to agree where their contribution and advice would be most useful.
23.16 Recommendation: The Strategic Oversight Group or the National Complaint Handling Development Group should take an early opportunity to engage with the SPSO to agree where their contribution and advice would be most useful.