Tough words for the GOC on its FTP performance

The latest Professional Standards Authority’s review of the regulator highlights avoidable delays and concerns with the new triage decision-making process for fitness to practise cases

GOC desk

The Professional Standards Authority’s (PSA) latest report on the performance of the General Optical Council (GOC) has confirmed that the regulator met its Standards of Good Regulation for its work relating to standards, education and registration, but reveals ongoing concerns in the regulator’s management of fitness to practise (FTP) cases, stating that there were avoidable delays in 67% cases of those the PSA reviewed.

The 2016–17 performance review report states that the GOC met 22 of the PSA’s 24 standards of good regulation, the same number as in the previous year. However, two standards relating to the PSA’s standards on FTP were not met, raising concerns for the GOC to address.

Weaknesses uncovered

The report is most critical when reviewing whether the GOC is dealing with FTP cases as quickly as possible. The PSA states: “In all key timeliness measures for fitness to practise, the GOC’s performance continues to decline. In our audit, we found avoidable delays in 67 of the 100 cases we reviewed, across all stages, including delays where there was no activity to progress cases.”

The PSA added: “We also noted weaknesses in chasing up outstanding information requested from the parties to a complaint and no real evidence of a system of regular oversight. The GOC has introduced new processes to help it improve timeliness, but these have yet to have any impact. We will continue to monitor the GOC’s performance against this standard.”

The GOC also failed to meet the PSA’s standard that requires ‘anybody can raise a concern.’ Having carried out a targeted review that looked at the GOC’s new triage process on whether to carry out a full investigation, the report notes: “We identified concerns about triage decision-making in 13 out of the 45 cases we reviewed as well as concerns about cases closed by case examiners. Our audit revealed that not all the relevant information relating to a case is being properly considered at this stage and that, where a case is closed, the reasons are not always present and/or clear.”

In two further areas, the report raises concerns about the GOC’s performance for FTP, noting the need to ‘monitor’ progress.

When considering if complaints are ‘reviewed and the most serious prioritised,’ the PSA notes that it “had to consider carefully” if this standard was met, explaining: “Our audit identified concerns about the processes in place for assessing risk. However, we did not identify any cases where appropriate action had not been taken when significant risk was present. We decided that the standard is met, but we will continue to monitor the GOC’s performance.”

Under the FTP standard relating to whether the regulator will ‘determine if there is a case to answer,’ the report states that the PSA carried out a targeted review of this standard because “we wanted to be sure that there had been no negative impact on decision-making by replacing the investigating committee with case examiners (in April 2014).”

Having reviewed 41 cases closed by GOC case examiners, the PSA found concerns in six, and had concerns about how allegations were drafted, including not capturing the full extent of the concerns or not seeking clinical advice. However, the report concluded: “In the majority of cases we reviewed we found that decisions made were appropriate and did not raise any public protection concerns.”

Working hard to improve

In a statement, the GOC said it ‘welcomed’ the findings, highlighting that the PSA’s report noted improvements that the GOC had made to its information governance processes, a standard the regulator failed to pass in 2016–17.

Addressing the failings, the regulator added that the standards the GOC did not meet relate to how it previously recorded FTP triage decisions, and to the total time taken to process fitness to practise complaints, observing that the review covered the period 1 October 2016 to 30 September 2017.

Interim chief executive and registrar, Lesley Longstone, said: “We welcome the PSA’s report and its recognition of the work we are doing to protect the public. We have worked hard to improve our information governance processes over the last few years and are pleased to see this recognised in us meeting the relevant standard.”

Ms Longstone added: “In respect of the recording of triage decisions, we accept that this could have been clearer during the period of the review. We are confident that improvements we have already made will have addressed the Authority’s concerns in this area. Speeding the FTP process up overall remains a longer-term challenge for us but is nonetheless one we are determined to succeed in. The recent introduction of consensual panel disposal and our forthcoming acceptance criteria will help in this area, as will the recruitment of additional staff.” 

GOC chair, Gareth Hadley, said: “Lesley has set out the work we’re doing internally to address the challenge of FTP timeliness, but I also reiterate our call for legislative reform to help modernise the process for all healthcare professional regulators. We welcome that the Government consulted on regulatory reform last year; if there is an opportunity to legislate in this area it would greatly help us all to improve the efficiency of our FTP process in the interests of patients and registrants alike.

“Meanwhile we welcome the PSA’s ongoing work to modernise the Standards of Good Regulation and look forward to continuing to work with them to protect the public.”

The full report is available on the PSA website.