An effective complaints handling system is crucial for ensuring access to justice and public services. One in five citizens experience problems with that access: from applying for a permit or benefits, to receiving education and health care. The 25,727 complaints the National Ombudsman received in 2020, and the role that improper complaint handling played in the recent childcare benefits scandal and the fall of the government, prove that there is much to be gained in this area. Therefore, Open State Foundation has started the Open Complaints project together with the National Ombudsman, as part of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Action Plan 2021-2022.
The end goal of this project is to have all complaint handlers – first-line and second-line, i.e. administrative bodies and ombudsmen – publish all complaints as open data. We will realise this through the development of data standard and database, and a central dashboard where the data can be searched, filtered and visualised. Not only because complaints data constitutes government information that the taxpayer is simply entitled to, but also because of the great potential open complaints data has:
- It contributes to the learning capacity of complaint handlers. It offers them insight into the complaint process, so that they can detect and repair its weak points. They can also compare their approach and results to those of other municipalities or ombudsmen. In addition, registering demographic data can help complaint handlers to get to know the complainant, and to find out which vulnerable target groups do not yet know how to find their services.
- Analysis of the data can help improve the services about which citizens complain (and thus prevent complaints). This is the purpose of the right to complain, according to the Ministry of the Interior: ‘On the basis of received complaints, the administration can correct mistakes and eliminate weaknesses within the organisation.’ Implementing a publication standard contributes to this, as the National Programme for Sustainable Digital Information Management (RDDI) explains: ‘Forms of pattern recognition can be used, for example to analyse common complaints, or recurring findings or conclusions. It will be easier to provide insight via infographics, news cross-sections and overviews.’
- The database enables citizens, interest groups and legal entities with a complaint to see how many others are experiencing the same problem. Moreover, complainants can use the information to formulate their complaint in such a way that they meet admissibility requirements and are well-founded in substance. Public complaints can offer them points of departure, material for comparison and (legal) arguments to determine and defend their legal position and chances of success.
- Academics, NGOs, politicians, interest groups and journalists can contribute to the foregoing, with their own data analyses and with proposals for improvement of both the complaints handling process and the public services complained about.
In short, open complaints data contributes to effective access to law and remedy, and to the improvement of public services. Plus, adopting a standard for registering and publishing complaints is cost-effective in the context of the new Open Government Act (Woo).
This Act will require governments and ombudsmen to actively publish the written judgements in complaint procedures. This, together with the inadequate complaints handling process that was revealed by the childcare benefits affair, makes it one of the two points in the Action Plan that have ‘considerable potential for results’, according to the OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM). The IRM also encourages it because it is a pioneering initiative at the international level, with which the Netherlands can set an example for other countries. Therefore, we will eventually focus on developing an international communication strategy and, as part of this, organise events or participate in existing (international) events.
At the moment, however, we are still in the process of forming a ‘steering committee’ of transparency leaders: municipalities and local ombudsmen who, like the National Ombudsman, want to contribute to the development of the standard and ultimately apply it, in order to share experiences and set a good example for other complaint handlers. We will then organise sessions with re-users to map out their information needs, and with complaint handlers and their data teams to gain visibility of the technical possibilities. The ultimate goal for 2022 is developing the data standard.