This piece first appeared in the September edition of the Housing Quality Magazine, which you can read here.

By Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman

A vital skill of an Ombudsman is listening. Taking care to understand the issues from the perspective of each party, empathising whilst remaining impartial and, if something has gone wrong, making sure listening leads to learning.

The complaints procedure can be emotional and distressing, and listening is such an important part of rebuilding trust where it has fractured. It’s one reason why our approach to resolving complaints can be far more beneficial than an adversarial legal process.

And this listening role shouldn’t be confined to our resolution work – it should be part of our wider leadership role as an Ombudsman to improve residents experience of housing services.

That’s one reason why we set up our Resident Panel. The panel will support our strategic development as an Ombudsman service and projects to promote a positive complaints culture.

The Panel was established in recognition that we do a vast amount of engagement with landlords through various forums, but don’t have an equivalent to directly hear the collective voice of residents.

It has been exhilarating to see the Panel come to life.

We recruited 600 residents from across the country and it’s a really representative group. The majority of members are female, under 60 years old and live outside Greater London. This breadth is evident when residents enthusiastically say hello in sessions from villages, towns and cities across the country.

Over two weeks in July, including a very warm evening, we held meetings with the Panel to discuss our forthcoming Corporate Plan. The meetings included break out groups, residents addressing the main sessions, and question times with my colleagues.

This plan will set out our development as a service over the next three years, a period which will see further change in the social housing sector following the White Paper, and is an important moment for us to set out our direction as an Ombudsman. We have held similar discussions with landlords.

So what did we hear, and what does it mean for our service? The need to raise awareness of the Ombudsman was a recurrent theme and building trust in the complaints process.

Indeed, we ran several polls during the sessions, and 63% of residents said the Ombudsman would be their preferred route for unresolved disputes – a clear majority compared to other options – but 38% felt residents wouldn’t know how or feel confident on the process. This is critical to address.

Our work around using mediation to resolve complaints and ensuring the needs of people with disabilities are considered and met was also discussed. The Panel said they would like more information on systemic investigations – something we have heard from landlords too – and how they could impact on residents.

We explored some of these issues in more detail at a special interest session on awareness raising and digitisation. The Panel said there needs to be a breadth of communication methods used to raise awareness of the Ombudsman including for residents who don’t have online access.

They felt landlords should have a bigger part to play in raising awareness, but also not to rely on landlords as the only way of doing so.

On digitisation, the Panel were clear that our online service needs to be simple and straightforward. Whilst we are clear digitisation will always be just one route to our service, they said the benefits of digitisation could be that it speeds up the service so more residents could be helped and may encourage groups of residents, such as younger people, to use the service.

So what next?

The discussions will feed into our developing corporate plan which we will consult on later this year. Raising awareness of the complaints process, as well as the Ombudsman, is a challenge, as is promoting greater understanding of our role.

Being able to ensure hard-to-reach residents and groups are part of that, and doing something specific in this area, is also one of my goals to ensure the service can be accessed and used by everyone who needs it.