Northern Ireland Ombudsman Launches New ‘ASSIST’ Service

Assist TeamThe office of the Northern Ireland Ombudsman has invested in a new front of house team – ASSIST or the ‘Advice, Support, Service and Initial Screening Team’ – in a bid to improve the effective management of complaints from the general public about a wide range of public service delivery.

Comprising the offices of the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Northern Ireland Ombudsman deals with complaints from people who claim to have suffered injustice because of maladministration by government departments, their agencies, local councils, health and social care trusts and a wide range of other bodies delivering public services.

In 2012, the Ombudsman’s office received over 1,800 written and telephone enquiries- demonstrating a growing awareness of the service. However the number of these enquiries outside of the jurisdiction of the office amounted to around 45% of the total. Recognising the importance of early assessment of enquiries – detecting those suitable for further investigation whilst redirecting the remainder – would substantially improve the handling of complaints, the ASSIST team was established in late 2013.

Made up of Investigating Officers and Administrative Support, the team – described as the ‘triage’ service for the office – answer all written, telephone and in-person queries, making a quick decision on whether or not a complaint meets the legislative requirements of the office. If accepted, the complaint is passed to an Investigating Officer for further enquiries and that officer will gather evidence, perspectives, and explanations from all parties to the complaint. The Ombudsman then comes to a decision as to whether maladministration has been found, and reports on his findings and recommendations to the complainant and body complained of.

Northern Ireland Ombudsman Dr. Tom Frawley CBE said: “Early assessment and resolution is crucial to providing a high level of public service in this office, and the establishment of our new ASSIST team enables us to really embed this practice. Any member of the public contacting the office can be assured of a thorough and timely assessment of their complaint- whether this involves redirection to a more appropriate body or an investigation by one of my officers.”

Sean McKenna, Director of Investigations added “We have invested both in the establishment of this service and training for our staff to ensure a seamless integration – and we’re delighted with the outcome. There has been a noticeable increase in the number of cases successfully cleared through the office – either through settlement, redirection or referral – and as the service beds down we expect this level of efficiency to continue improving.”

The Ombudsman is independent from all bodies he investigates and deals with complaints from people who claim to have suffered injustice because of maladministration by those bodies. The full list of bodies is available on www.ni-ombudsman.org.uk.

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