skip tocontent

ombudsman news

issue 55

August 2006

ombudsman focus on Estelle Clark, the ombudsman service quality director

The Financial Ombudsman Service's quality director, Estelle Clark, is responsible for developing and implementing initiatives relating to the quality of the service we provide. We spoke to Estelle and found out more.

quality is clearly an important concept, but can seem quite abstract. What are your thoughts on this-

It's essential for any organisation to have confidence in the quality of the work it produces. But quality is not an easy thing to measure. Of course - if things go wrong, it's important to identify the cause of the problem and prevent it from happening again. But what should be central to the way any organisation works is getting things right in the first place. Quality assurance helps ensure that happens.

Accurate quality-checking is necessary to maintain standards across the organisation. It allows managers to give feedback to their team members, provides statistics which reflect our performance, and allows us to continuously improve our service.

so is this something the Financial Ombudsman Service has always done-

Yes - we have always kept an eye on quality and consistency by reviewing 'closed' cases and making sure they had been dealt with properly. And ombudsmen have always given adjudicators feedback on cases which have been referred for a final decision. So there was definitely a strong background of good practice.

But the present-day ombudsman service was formed from various different bodies, each of which had their own different ways of checking on quality. So there were some differences in the ways quality was monitored across the organisation. My job is really to pull all that together and ensure we're performing at the best level we can.

how did you know where to start-

One of the first things we did was to build some IT processes directly into our automated casework system. This enabled us to perform quality checks on randomly selected cases. It meant we could then make these checks while cases were still being worked on, as well as continuing to check on those which had been completed. We also decided to develop two complementary processes - quality assurance and quality audit.

do they focus on different areas of casework-

No, they look at the same information but from a different perspective. Let me start with quality assurance. This focuses on cases while they are still in progress. It picks up any cases which we feel are at risk of falling outside our quality standards.

This can be because of a number of things - from the length of time the cases have been 'open' to the number of adjudicators who have worked on them.

We are able to alert managers to cases which potentially fall into this category by using a 'dashboard' of reports. This is a way of presenting and summarising data on a weekly basis, in a format that has maximum clarity and impact. The data includes key information, such as which cases are taking longer to resolve or have not moved on for a certain amount of time. It allows us to see both individual cases and themes, together with any wider issues involving particular teams or adjudicators. And because the checks are weekly, we can catch any potential problems and take remedial action quickly.

how do you do that-

Well we can see if the case itself is a particularly difficult one, if the delay or problem is reasonable, or if the adjudicator dealing with it needs a steer to help move things on. If we see similar issues cropping up, it could mean that our IT system or internal guidance needs updating, or that the individual or team needs more direction in general. If we find that the system itself is OK, then we can bring in more specific support and training.

so quality assurance looks at cases while they are still being worked on and measures them against acceptable standards-

That's right. Most importantly it allows us to identify problems before they occur. That means we can provide organisational and individual support - on top of the system improvement which is always taking place.

What's really useful when dealing with cases of differing complexity is that the testing process can be tailored to the case. A straightforward complaint will not need the wider and more stringent testing measures that a very complex one will. For example, mortgage endowment complaints - where no financial loss has yet actually crystallised - aren't expected to be resolved within the same time-scale as, say, complaints about critical illness insurance, where matters may be more urgent.

are the systems and processes amended where necessary-

Yes - although there will, of course, be occasions where the process itself is fine, but the person in charge of the case may need a little extra guidance - which we can then easily provide. This system is so effective precisely because it allows us to nip any potential problems in the bud.

if the quality assurance system works, why do you need an audit as well-

Ah yes - the audit. That's the second of the two quality processes we have in place. The audit takes place at the end of the process and looks at complaints which are already resolved and closed. It assesses the quality of a random sample of cases by reference to around 40 'critical-to-quality' areas, grouped under four main headings. These are 'investigation and outcome', 'communications', 'processes and procedures' and 'delays and updates'.

The size of the samples means that we are able to produce a 'quality index' covering all aspects of our casework, as opposed to the area-specific measurements that the earlier checks give us.

what sort of things are you looking to find in the audit-

Well we hope to find nothing at all! We don't aim to find problems in our audit - we hope it will show that everything is of the highest standard. But the audit is very thorough. If we're looking at - for example - timeliness, then any instance of insufficient communication with the consumer or firm will get flagged up.

We don't use the audit as our main method of quality checking - there's a limit to what we can do once a case is closed. But it's a very effective way to quality-check our quality-checks. It's important to have double protection in this type of public-facing organisation. It's like wearing a belt and braces I suppose!

what happens with the information afterwards-

This information is fed back to our case-handlers and managers and used as part of the quality assurance process.

We can use it in other ways too. There are certain things that can't really be measured in absolute terms - such as an adjudicator's ability to empathise with the people they are dealing with. By comparing feedback from our customer satisfaction surveys with the results of our quality audit, we can ensure we're focusing on the areas that really do matter to our customers. If there are discrepancies, then we can rethink what we are looking for with the audit.

do you get feedback directly from the firms as well-

You mean apart from the feedback we get through our external liaison work at roadshows and other events- Well, following on from the surveys we have conducted previously, we are extending our market research by carrying out surveys of firms on a quarterly basis. These will give us a more structured way of gathering this information than we have had in the past.

do these surveys measure the standards of your case-handling as well-

It's important when you set standards that they properly reflect the real concerns of the people who use your service - not just your own internal opinion and perspective. The surveys give us that external perspective on the standards we've set ourselves. They're a way of helping us double-check whether we're getting it right.

photo: Estelle Clark, the ombudsman service quality director

Photo: Estelle Clark, the ombudsman service quality director

ombudsman news issue 55 [PDF format]

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.