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Sorry still seems to be the hardest word

26 February 2014

Des Kelly OBE

NCF Blog - by Des Kelly OBE

Something that David Behan (CEO, CQC) said at yesterday’s Care & Support Alliance meeting got me thinking. He was describing work that CQC are currently doing with the Patients Association on complaints arguing that they represent ‘free intelligence’. I should say at the outset that I completely agree with him on this issue.

One of the most challenging and rewarding roles I have held in the care sector was as Service Quality Director in a large corporate care provider. It is almost 20 years ago and the organisation had sought to integrate operational management within a service quality framework across 60+ care homes supporting around 2500 residents. A significant part of our remit (although I hadn’t realised it when the new structure was just put in place) was the handling of complaints.

Within the Service Quality Team we decided that we would try to break the typical approach of responding to complaints defensively. It might seem naïve but we wanted to demonstrate a transparent and open management style by responding quickly and thoroughly to complaints.
We used an early meeting with complainants as the opportunity to understand how they wanted the matter resolved. We learned that when people complain they want it acknowledged that they were right to complain as something was wrong in some way. In the majority of cases, an apology at this stage was the end to the matter. Why is sorry still the hardest word in social care?

Let me be clear, however, that in the most serious of situations when things have gone wrong that it is vital that action is taken and evident and followed up. People want reassurance that it won’t happen again. They want to know that lessons have been learned.

This may mean that systems or procedures or training has been changed. Sometimes they expect that staff will have been subject to disciplinary procedures. Only occasionally (in my experience) are they wanting compensation.

So often, it seems to me, we make a situation worse because of a fear of litigation – the idea that we can’t say sorry as it involves admitting liability. One of the main problems of this response is that it ignores the humanity or compassion of the situation especially when there have been tragic consequences.

David Behan’s remark that complaints are ‘free intelligence’ fits here. Complaints can be undiluted feedback about a service. When they are acted upon they become a part of service quality improvement. Care and support services that are capable of learning in this way have the best chance of becoming consistently excellent. It starts with being able to say sorry …and meaning it!

Des Kelly OBE
Executive Director
National Care Forum

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