Introduction
The Office of The Ombudsman has implemented the INCH Programme since January 1996. The Programme affords an opportunity for complainee organisations, by way of referrals, to resolve simple complaints lodged with this Office in the first instance through their internal complaint handling mechanisms. This is an information note intended to provide general guidance for organisations under The Ombudsman's jurisdiction to handle complaints referred under the INCH Programme.

 

Why Introduce the INCH Programme
2. The Office of The Ombudsman is not an office of last resort nor is it intended to replace existing avenues for appeals and complaints. Referring complaints to complainee departments under the INCH Programme is also in line with the general principle for an ombudsman office to strive for a resolution of a problem or recommend administrative improvements and not necessarily a finding of right or wrong. The Programme also allows The Ombudsman more flexibility in the deployment of resources in tackling investigation of complaints that are complicated, incapable of informal resolution and of wide implications.
 
What Complaints are Suitable for INCH
3. In deciding whether to refer an investigatable complaint to the complainee organisation for consideration in the first instance, this Office will give due regard to the following considerations -
 
It is the express wish of the complainant to simply have his/her personal problem resolved and he/she consents to referral.
The complainant has not yet approached the complainee organisation to try to resolve the problem.
The nature of the complaint does not merit a formal investigation and it appears capable of speedy and informal resolution through internal procedures.
The complaint does not appear to involve points of principle, gross injustice, serious maladministration, systemic flaws or procedural deficiencies.

 

How the INCH Programme Works
4. At present, every complaint received by this Office will go through a vigorous screening process to establish whether the complaint is investigatable under The Ombudsman Ordinance and if a prima facie case exists for investigation. If so, The Ombudsman will determine how best it should be handled or followed up having regard to the nature and merits of the complaint, the likelihood of recurrence of the problem, any far-reaching implications and the expectations of the complainant. If The Ombudsman considers a complaint should be handled by internal procedures first, this Office would request the organisation concerned to look into the matter, address the concerns raised and give a reply to complainant within three weeks and to copy their reply to this Office. If it is unable to do so, the organisation would be asked to provide an interim reply to the complainant. The Ombudsman will review the action taken by the organisation to see if it is necessary for him to intervene or follow up.
 
What is Expected to be Included in Organisations' Replies to Complainants

5. As the public sector is moving towards a customer and task-oriented culture, organisations should view every complaint as an opportunity to reflect on the service environment and make improvements and adjustments where due. Ignoring or denying a complaint will only generate hard feelings and complicate the matter. After all it is unrealistic to expect any organisation to be error-free. In fulfilling Government's commitment to be more open and accountable, and for good customer relations purpose, organisations concerned should acknowledge and account for complaints made, clarify the relevant policy and situation, remedy the matter and extend an apology where due.

6. As a matter of good practice, replies should be written in simple language for the benefit of complainants as many of them may not have the vaguest idea of how the public sector functions or what the law provides. Depending on individual circumstances and merits of a complaint, The Ombudsman expects the reply to include the following contents as appropriate -

 
Circumstances giving rise to the complaint.
The investigation of the complaint and the outcome as measured against the established policy, operational guidelines/procedures and performance pledges/targets.
If the complaint is justified and complainant has sustained injustice, say so.
Reasons for upholding a decision or a change of decision should be given.
Action taken or to be taken to remedy the situation or problem where due.
 
How The Office of The Ombudsman Follows-up on INCH
7. This Office has a responsibility to ensure that all complaints referred to the complainee organisations are appropriately and fairly dealt with. Upon completion of internal investigation by complainee organisations and having regard to replies to complainants, The Ombudsman may decide to seek further clarification, make suggestions or conclude the case as appropriate. On the other hand, if The Ombudsman having considered the additional or new facts brought to light, the gravity of the complaint and any mitigating factors. He may decide to conduct a formal investigation in the public interest to prevent recurrences of similar complaints and/or improve the standard of public administration. The Ombudsman may also consider investigating into the complaint if the complainant remains dissatisfied and has a valid ground of complaint.
 
Complaint Management and Training
8. With the introduction of the Programme, it is important that organisations should be better prepared to handle complaints referred to them. This Office will, therefore, organise briefings in the coming months and a Complaint Management Workshop in June for complaint officers of the organisations under The Ombudsman's jurisdiction to enable them to better understand the operations of this office and the Programme.
 
Administrative Fairness Checklist
9. This Office has drawn up an Administrative Fairness Checklist which sets out the broad framework of what constitutes fairness in public administration. This was sent to organisations in November 1995. Organisations should make reference to the Checklist which is intended as a guide for formulation of systems and procedures, exercise of powers and discretion, decision-making, and addressing the concern of the public.
 
Conclusion

10. Complaints are often held in unfavourable light as they are intrinsic with a finding of right or wrong. We consider that it need not be so. By viewing complaints in their proper perspective, organisations can turn them into a valuable management tool which can usefully act as a barometer to measure against public reaction to the existing policies and procedures, attract attention to possible failures within existing systems and prompt solutions to problems which may otherwise take time to surface.

11. This Office is confident that the Programme will work to the benefits of both the public and the organisations under The Ombudsman's jurisdiction. The Programme will not only result in greater satisfaction among the complainants and the organisations concerned, but also in many instance provide a more rapid resolution without having to go through a full investigation.