'Future-focused' LeO sets out new three-year strategy
Modernisation is key to improving efficiency at the legal ombudsman
Enhanced business processes supported by a new IT system can help the Legal Ombudsman to deliver an improved service for consumers and solicitors amid further budget cuts, the body has said.
In an exclusive interview with Solicitors Journal, chief ombudsman Kathryn Stone, director of corporate services Rob Powell, and head of operations Simon Tunnicliffe spoke enthusiastically about how LeO will implement its 2017-2020 strategy and business plan and overcome challenges facing the complaints service.
Four key strategic objectives underpin LeO’s vision: effectively resolving complaints; engaging with and influencing the legal services and CMC markets; developing the complaints scheme and service; and modernising the ombudsman to improve performance and customer service and embed the right culture and skills.
Stone stressed its customer service values (open, fair, independent, effective) were ‘at the heart of everything we do’ and said consumers and stakeholders could hold the ombudsman to account on these over the coming years.
One key challenge in achieving LeO’s vision will be in ensuring its IT infrastructure drives greater efficiencies, as Powell explained: ‘We’ve got a lot to do on the IT side. We’ve done a lot already and the position is already more stable than it was six to 12 months ago.’
Outlining LeO’s three-pronged approach to improving its IT system, the operations director said: ‘The first one is to give people devices that are modern and fit for purpose. We’ve been working on very old machines that have contributed to the problems. We are almost there with rolling out new equipment to all of our users who report much better functionality and performance from that.
‘Second, we are in the middle of a procurement to appoint a new infrastructure provider for IT which is progressing really well. Third, we’re redeveloping a new case management system. That process is being driven by changes in how we deliver the scheme in terms of our ways of working and structures and is on target to be rolled out this September. When all three come together the IT problems should be a thing of the past.’
LeO’s modernisation strategy has a work stream on ensuring a unified IT environment and another on enhancing its business processes. ‘The customer journey through the system should be improved by focusing on the two elements together – by being business driven you get IT that will facilitate good business processes and a good service. On its own, IT won’t solve everything.’
The changes will be crucial to LeO’s attempts to deliver a 15 per cent efficiency target by 2019/20 against a 2015/16 baseline set by the Ministry of Justice. The ombudsman’s budget for legal activities has already fallen from £16m in 2013/14 to £11.6m in 2015/16.
Alongside developing the IT system, LeO has also attempted to improve performance through incremental changes to its business processes, such as a triage system for complaints.
‘It puts our experienced resources at the front of the process with an ombudsman to actually look at the complaint at the outset,’ explained Tunnicliffe. ‘[The system] assesses it for things like complexity, vulnerability of our customers, or whether we can quickly and informally resolve it, so we can deal with those complaints in a quick and timely manner.
‘Where the complaint can be resolved, a triage review will take place. Any evidence will be requested in advance so it is ready for the investigator. Historically that has not been the case,’ Tunnicliffe added. ‘What that means is past cases are sat in queues waiting to be moved through the process.
‘By introducing the triage, putting our very experienced people at the front end of the process, it gets the ball rolling much faster and means that when we are ready to investigate it it’s presented as a package ready for investigators to crack on with straightaway. That’s been one of our most significant achievements over the last 12 months and something that has gone quite well.’
While there was marked progress throughout 2016, LeO received an unwelcome reminder late last year of the need to improve its internal processes. On 5 December 2016 LeO temporarily removed the complaints data for Q1 2016/17 from its website due to data inconsistencies and insufficient staff training. At a meeting of the Office for Legal Complaints two days later, the chief concern raised by members was data integrity.
‘I’m sorry that these inconsistencies happened in the first place,’ said Stone. ‘I acknowledge the frustration that that will have caused for consumers and for service providers.
‘In all cases the fact that an ombudsman had made a decision was published accurately. The inconsistencies were, for example, we said that poor service had been found and had been based on delay when in fact it was based on information about costs. We might have said a remedy was for £X rather than £Y.’
The data for Q1, Q2, and Q3 will be published online in April with Q4 following in May, said Stone, who is determined to learn from any previous errors. ‘We want to ensure our ongoing commitment that the data we have does stand up to scrutiny. To achieve this, we’re enhancing our data and insight team with the addition of two specialist data analysts so that the information, when it is back, will be improved, it will be accurate, and it will be accessible.
‘Taking the positives out of this, the experience has given us the opportunity to improve. As an ombudsman we have set our stall out by being open. We identified there was a problem, we’re putting it right, and we will be better as a result of that.’
Lack of redress
LeO’s 2017-2020 vision also outlined the importance of responding effectively to a rapidly changing market, particularly as recommendations from the Competition and Markets Authority’s legal services market study are implemented.
‘The CMA report was a very important report,’ said Stone. ‘One of the important things that was identified was the current lack of redress for people who used unauthorised or unregulated providers. It makes perfect sense to us at LeO that we should be the organisation that is able to provide complaints investigation and handling, and promote redress for those individuals.’
However, the chief ombudsman said issues remained over funding and how LeO would work with providers. ‘At the moment we’re funded by the Lord Chancellor’s levy. It wouldn’t be right for us to have discussions about with unauthorised providers using time that is paid for with the levy.
‘There will need to be further discussions with the Ministry of Justice about how that happens. Certainly for our staff there’s nothing more dispiriting than somebody ringing up having had a very difficult experience with an unauthorised provider and realising that we can’t help them.’
At a strategy meeting later today, LeO will ask stakeholders what it can do better and how this can be achieved. ‘We want to know whether we’ve correctly analysed the environment,’ explained Powell. ‘We want to understand whether our direction of travel is the correct one in a very fast-moving dynamic environment.
‘We also want to know whether what we’re doing with the organisation is right. We’re genuinely open to input and ideas from our stakeholders and a key part of this strategy will be to get much better at engaging with the outside world and the external environment having had a challenging three years where we’ve been quite inwardly focused.’
Stone said this ‘inward focus’ had been ‘very important’ in becoming more confident on external matters and cited the success of LeO’s first time buyers guide as an example.
‘The Legal Ombudsman is very much open to business, we are future focused and want to improve in every way we can. We would welcome any opportunity to listen to and learn from solicitors about how we can do that.’
Matthew Rogers is a reporter at Solicitors Journal