There was a very good turnout for our workshops on research at the Ombudsman Association annual conference in Loughborough last week.
The opening plenary session of the conference suggested that research would be a recurring theme throughout the conference. Dr David Halpern of the Behavioural Insights Team discussed the way organisations can influence behaviour through small changes (the wording of letters, for example) to lead to better decision-making. He discussed evidence suggesting people want feedback, the ability to share experiences, and closure. They also want human contact. He urged ombuds to consider experimenting and running controlled trials of different methods and approaches to iterate and refine how complaints are handled.
Dr Naomi Creutzfeldt (Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Oxford) discussed her ESRC-funded comparative research on users’ trust of and perceptions of ombudsman, surveying complainants who have used 14 consumer ombudsman schemes across Europe. She is testing the theory of procedural justice set out by Tyler and others – that people will accept negative outcomes if they perceive the process as fair. She has found that expectations are similar for users of public and private ombudsman schemes, but these expectations can change over time. Best practice is to create trustworthy behaviour among all in the three trust relationships: consumer, ombudsman, and service provider.
Working with colleagues Carolyn Hirst (lecturer at Queen Margaret University’s Consumer Insight Centre and independent mediator and researcher) and Nick O’Brien (part-time judge in the mental health tribunal and honorary research fellow at Liverpool University Law School), we presented an overview of what aspects of ombudsmanry have been researched and invited discussion on what areas are under-researched. The sessions were chaired by Gill Bull, Director of Strategy and Insight at the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.
We explored examples of the types of research relevant to the ombuds community, including empirical observations of practice, mapping studies, satisfaction surveys, and comparative analyses. Areas of research include the ‘landscape’ of dispute resolution and redress; system design, concepts and models; techniques and skills; and the impact of ombudsman decisions.
We also discussed who commissions and conducts research, and what the tensions might be between these, and how research is used and understood. Relevant work can be found in unexpected places – in government White Papers, in the publications of thinktanks and non-governmental organisations, as well as in academic journals. One of the key issues arising from the discussion is the need to make academic research accessible to practitioners – both in terms of where it is published and how its findings can be translated for different audiences.
Participants expressed a concern that research is being carried out in a theoretical world with limited application to real-world practice – or as one participant so neatly explained: “In research I see haute couture, and I’m looking for street fashion.”
Research that puts ombuds in context and characterises the environment is valuable. Ombuds are working in specific political and economic contexts and are affected by the complaints-handling culture of the bodies in jurisdiction – whether that be estate agents or the Department for Work and Pensions.
Little is known of the experience of users of ombudsmen services – with ‘users’ including both the complainer and the complained-about. Most ombudsmen carry out or commission customer satisfaction research, but it was noted that ‘customer’ research should include bodies in jurisdiction and not just the consumer/citizen. Some ombuds have studied complainant behaviour and used this to inform the design of their procedures. Others are looking for more research on persistent complainant behaviour.
There was clear agreement that more research is needed on the impact of the work of ombudsmen. Participants noted that researching impact requires time and tenacity and taking the long view – which can restrict its ability to feed into policy making. ‘Impact’ itself is a contested and value-laden concept and entails evaluation of the purpose of ombuds.
By ‘impact’ do we mean impact on wider societal good, on ‘market efficiency’, on consumer satisfaction, on keeping disputes out of the court system? Or is there more to it than that?
There is scope for exploring and defining further the core function of the ombuds, and questions about the concept’s elasticity are legitimate ones as we see ombuds taking on investigations of the merits of decisions complained about. ‘Own initiative’ powers for ombuds are increasingly discussed, and authoritative research on their comparative use/impact would be helpful, including on their possible deployment by private-sector ombuds. In addition, exploration of the distinctive skills that enhance the distinctive technique of ombudsmanry would be useful (albeit subject to prior identification of what that distinctive technique entails).
Please use the Comments section to let us know if you’re involved in current research on ombuds or if you’ve identified areas of gaps in the research. We’d also like to hear from those who are interested in being involved in a forum on research on ombuds.