The Victorian Ombudsman has told councils to stop downplaying the number of complaints they receive.
Ombudsman Deborah Glass tabled in Victorian Parliament on Tuesday her report into how the state’s 79 councils handle complaints.
Back in 2014, the Ombudsman’s Office was concerned about the number of people who were unhappy with the way councils had responded to their concerns. The office’s enquiry into councils the following year found they had “too often viewed complaints as a nuisance”.
“In some cases, it appeared councils’ complaint-handling practices were fuelling grievances instead of addressing them,” the latest report recounted.
“Instead of using complaints as an opportunity to improve services, councils sometimes responded in ways that were defensive, bureaucratic or unhelpful.”
In her latest report, Glass has looked at how councils have changed their practices and what more can be done to ensure they make it easy to complain, respond to complaints effectively, and learn from complaints to improve services.
She found that more councils have formal complaint-handling policies and training for council officers, and there is more information available for the public about how to make complaints. More councils also have targets for responding to complaints quickly, advise people about avenues for review, and support their staff in dealing with challenging behaviour.
Despite these improvements, Glass noted, “changing attitudes and behaviours to complaints is an ongoing endeavour”.
According to the report, it is “concerning” that councils have made little progress with systems to record their complaints and “too many councils still disguise the true level of dissatisfaction with their services by labelling dissatisfaction as ‘requests for service’ or ‘matters with statutory rights of appeal’, instead of recognising them for what they are — complaints”. For example, the Yarra City Council recorded 1,341 complaints in 2018, but 159,155 requests for service.
However, the report did acknowledge that councils have concerns about the potential for complaints data to be used unfairly to criticise council services.
Some councils reported that staff had been reluctant to deal with complaints, particularly when the person complaining had shown challenging behaviour.
“Some staff fear complaints and speaking directly with the complainant or coming to the counter, leaving the brunt of the customer to the customer service staff,” a metropolitan council representative reported.
The report also found councils need to work on making their processes more accessible for people with a disability or communication differences, with tools such as telephone-interpreter services for people who use languages other than English, or software that allows written text to be read aloud.
Around two-thirds of councils said they offer a telephone interpreter service or the National Relay Service to help people make complaints, the report found. However, only 10% were translating information into languages other than English, while 24% said they publish information in Easy English.
Smaller regional councils were less likely to use accessibility tools for different communication needs. For example, 95% of metropolitan councils said they provide a telephone interpreter service for people who wish to complain, compared with 47% of large shire councils and 21% of small shire councils.
The Office of the Disability Services Commissioner suggested councils make their websites more accessible by using clear banners, tabs, or buttons to draw attention to the complaints process, giving examples of complaints that are out of the council’s scope with a list of other relevant complaint bodies, and using a skilled communications person to design easily accessible information.
The Ombudsman Office cited the East Gippsland Shire Council as an example of good practice in regards to accessibility. In 2017, that council reportedly sought support from the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission for developing a best-practice approach to dealing with challenging customers and providing customer service. Their approach included incorporating human rights obligations in policies and procedures, considering these obligations in the complaint-handling process, and identifying opportunities for professional development.
The Ombudsman made two recommendations to the Minister for Local Government, Adem Somyurek, and Local Government Victoria, which were accepted. They involved the updating and removing of definitions in the Local Government Bill, as well as the creation of regulations and indicators.
Glass said her office would update its release of data to assist councils, improve its Good Practice Guide for complaint handling, and continue to provide training for councils across the state.