Government consumer strategy calls for openness on complaints and other data

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By Legal Futures

15 April 2011

Going public: presumption in favour of publication, says government

The government has strongly supported the publication of complaints and other data as a way for consumers to hold businesses to account, in a move likely to put further pressure on the Legal Ombudsman to name law firms that are subject to complaints.

The consumer empowerment strategy, published this week by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, said greater government transparency and “consumer feedback sites” can then be used by third parties “to create simple, easy to use choice tools” for the public.

“Ombudsmen and regulatory bodies can improve the effectiveness of these choice tools by publishing the wealth of complaints and performance data that they collect about businesses.

“Making performance and complaints data more transparent is a good way of encouraging businesses to improve their performance without the need for heavy-handed legislation, as no company wants to be last in an indicator of performance or customer satisfaction. Clear and consistent information about performance and complaints can also be used to guide regulators’ decisions about where to focus their enforcement action, and about where additional guidance to consumers may be valuable.

“It can also help consumers to understand the types of issues that arise with particular products and how well companies respond to consumer complaints.”

The Legal Ombudsman announced recently that it needs to conduct several months of further research before making a decision on whether to release details of firms’ complaints records. Earlier this week, the Legal Services Consumer Panel included establishing good practice standards for legal comparison sites on its work programme for the next year.

The consumer strategy referred approvingly to the firm-level complaints data published by the Financial Services Authority. However, even this could go further, it said. “For example, there may be scope for providing more detailed breakdowns of the data to provide greater clarity on the level of complaints for different products or product types, or to provide more guidance on the types of issues consumers raise.”

The strategy continued: “Ombudsmen and regulators should provide information in ways that allow intermediaries to combine complaints data with other information on companies that may be of interest to consumers. This can then be presented in a simple format that will inform consumer choices.”

The strategy said it will set an expectation that regulators, government departments, regulated businesses, and public service providers are open “as a default position. They should continue to free the complaint and performance data (in particular on individual businesses) they already own unless they have a good reason to do otherwise”.

It will also encourage “the development of innovative ways of utilising data” by looking “to pump-prime or incentivise developers and intermediaries to utilise this data to create innovative applications and information”.

The paper added: “We would be interested to hear suggestions from consumer groups and businesses about other forms of data held by the government, regulators or ombudsmen that could be released, such as on legal services, transport, or public services.”

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