HSJ has spoken to six former and current staff from the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman about their concerns over the way public complaints are being handled and the culture of the ombudsman.

All six spoke separately to HSJ but gave consistent accounts of the culture and problems at the PHSO.

We have chosen to protect the identity of the individuals but believe their comments are in the public interest. Below are extracts from the interviews setting out some of their concerns.

Leadership and culture

The whistleblowers each approached HSJ to make public their concerns about the PHSO’s approach to complaints and low staff morale.

“As an ombudsman service, if you lose your credibility you lose all your power and effectiveness. PHSO has very little left.”

“They want a culture of fear, they want people to feel they can’t say anything because they think that is how you deliver change.”

“Morale is really dreadful and people are just really unhappy. People who work there care and want to do a good job.”

“The organisation is being deskilled massively because of the numbers of experienced people who have left.”

Increase in PHSO investigations

In 2013 ombudsman Dame Julie Mellor promised a tenfold increase in the number of investigations but the whistleblowers said what were previously assessments of complaints had simply been renamed as investigations.

“She has relabelled what we did before. We are not really doing anything different.”

“We were told to just keep doing what you are doing but classify them as investigations. It was the same work.”

“This wasn’t real. We were doing more investigations only because we had changed assessment work from being called an assessment to being called an investigation. But the actual work we were doing and producing was the same as we did before. What we did was really just to please the select committee.”

“I think Julie Mellor has…relabelled what we did before. We are not really doing anything different.”

Investigation targets

“Throughput” targets introduced last year meant investigators were responsible for 16 investigations at a time with a requirement to close 65 per cent within 13 weeks.

“The focus became shoe-horning whatever work we had done into an ‘investigation’ closure because we needed the numbers. The atmosphere changed into one in which it was believed that all that mattered was the numbers you achieved; our focus was delivery of corporate targets, not outcomes for our service users.”

“We lost any real focus on quality of casework and consistency just went out the window.”

“The targets are really difficult to achieve and to do a good job so what people started doing was cutting corners.”

New behavioural competency

One of the whistleblowers supplied HSJ with documents showing how a behavioural competency, introduced for PHSO staff last year and linked to their annual appraisal and pay, could result in them being called “ineffective” for displaying negative attitudes or challenging new ideas.

“Staff saw this as a measure aimed at gagging voices of dissent.”

“People were told if you were a manager you had to toe the line. I took that as a gagging clause. Anybody that expressed dissent or acted in a non-corporate way would be marked as ineffective. People definitely saw it as that.”

“It involved not being seen to doubt or question or challenge any of the things we were being asked to do. People had to be seen to be “on board” and if you weren’t the message was clear you had to leave.”

Exclusive: Whistleblowers expose 'toxic environment' at PHSO