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ombudsman news

issue 108

March/April 2013

keeping things in perspective

Over the last couple of months I've spent a lot of time focusing on numbers - how many cases we've received, what they were about, and what we think this means for our workload next year. We've examined, we've analysed, we've forecasted - and we've asked people with an interest in our work to tell us what they think of our assumptions and our plans. Those people who follow our work will know that we've just published our finalised plans and budget for 2013/2014 on our website.

So now it's on with the job in hand.

Whenever I talk to colleagues about individual cases, or go through a case file myself, I can't help being struck by the contrast between the idea of "thousands of complaints" - and the reality of each individual case, with its own unique circumstances and particular facts. But is it enough just to notice the contrast between the general and the particular - between "the big numbers" on the one hand, and the real people and businesses involved in the individual cases?

A lot of other organisations grapple with this same issue - and sometimes they can get it badly wrong. Take the recent widely reported problems at an NHS hospital - where a disproportionate focus on numbers and targets had disastrous consequences.

When I first heard about the story, my initial reaction was to wonder how on earth it could have happened - how it could have been allowed to happen. But when I thought about it more, I started to wonder what we could learn from what went wrong there - because, like a hospital, we too have targets, we deal with individuals, and we train and encourage our staff to make decisions and act in certain ways.

Reassuringly for me, I often hear my colleagues reminding themselves - and others - that "there are real people behind every case". I think we're acutely aware that our work affects lives, livelihoods and reputations. Every conversation, every letter, every decision matters a lot to somebody.

That knowledge influences the way we treat our customers, and the way we run our organisation. It's why our values are so important to us. And it's why we always try and look at a problem from the perspectives of the people involved.

But that doesn't mean letting our hearts rule our heads. We make decisions based on the facts, not on how we feel. Our job is to bring clarity and understanding, and to act with integrity.

You could call it "professional compassion" - our way of bridging the divide between "the big numbers" and the real people we deal with.

I'm not saying we get it right all the time. But it's something we're determined not to lose sight of as demand for our services increases.

Natalie Ceeney
chief executive and chief ombudsman

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ombudsman news gives general information on the position at the date of publication. It is not a definitive statement of the law, our approach or our procedure.

The illustrative case studies are based broadly on real-life cases, but are not precedents. Individual cases are decided on their own facts.