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Complaints patterns must reach agency heads: ombudsman

Colin Heave
Colin Neave

Commonwealth ombudsman Colin Neave has concluded his investigation of complaints handling in government agencies. He sat down with The Mandarin to discuss the trends, best practice and what improvements agencies can make in 2015.

In the public sector, complaints handling has improved but can still be rote, officious and — without outside attention — invisible to leadership. If an agency’s complaints are down, it might mean there are fewer issues, or invaluable public feedback about systemic problems just isn’t getting through.

Neave says treating every complaint from the public as if it could represent a systemic issue is one area the private sector has led best practice.

“I think a secretary of a department should get reports about complaints,” Neave said. “The same way I know in the banking sector, a lot of chief executives in banks get reports about what people are saying about them.

“Complaint handling is a very important part of getting feedback on the way you’re doing business. You may need to refine the way you’re doing business based on the feedback you’re getting from in effect your customers. Complaints should be valued, they should be looked at very carefully.”

Some of the best examples in the private sector have been where the person receiving the complaint, for example in a call centre, could press a button to flag the engagement as relating to a possible systemic issue. Then a small team of more experienced employees would examine those reported engagements to determine if they were in fact related to a systemic issue. Neave, who has previously served as an ombudsman to the financial sector, says he stopped having to deal with systemic issues in one of the big four banks once it used this approach to identify and address them in-house.

“Having quite senior people in that space is a very good way of doing business.”

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority is one example of a public agency that has independently adopted this approach. “CASA has a very good system that we were most impressed with,” Neave said. Where a complaint is resolved, a report is done to summarise how the complaint was resolved, what the complaint was, and also whether it raised a systemic issue. That then is provided as feedback to senior management, which could in turn lead to more effectively doing the work in the future.

“Having quite senior people in that space is a very good way of doing business,” he said. “Often employees within a call centre environment are trained up to a point, quite appropriately they’ve got screens to tell them what to say, but the people who have more experience in the business are the ones who are best able to see if something might be a systemic issue.

“We shouldn’t interpret systemic issues too narrowly. We need to think about improving processes and services delivered to the public, so anyone within an organisation is encouraged to make a comment about this, and not just see the way business is done now as the be-all-and-end-all, rather, sometimes we need to look differently at how we deliver services.”

With the public sector talking change, really it should be a natural part of what they’re doing, says Neave. Making employees comfortable with change and giving a vision can be helpful for minimising complaints and “things going wrong in government”.

The five areas of focus for 2015

2015-01-12_14-55-33The existing published advice for public sector agencies — the Ombudsman’s Better Practice Guide to Complaint Handling — had its genesis 20 years ago. Although periodically updated, the research premise of the advice, fundamentally, comes from a time before the sophisticated digital tools that assist today, or the shift in thinking that affirmed complaint handling as a necessary component to service delivery.

Having recently completed an investigation of complaint management in Commonwealth and ACT agencies, Neave is in the process of re-writing the rulebook with his latest findings. He identifies five areas that agencies need to focus on in 2015.

The first is ensuring vulnerable people not only have access to the complaints process, but understand it and can access assistance. Neave says it would be a mistake to assume that technology and better attitudes have made this redundant.

“You can’t assume everyone has access to a computer,” he said. You have to provide telephone services, and sometimes you have to provide in-person services within offices that people can go in and talk about things. A lot of people have difficulty writing a letter, so they need to be able to talk about whatever the problem might be.”

Staff should also be able to tailor their responses to vulnerable people. The ombudsman’s office walks the talk, too, regularly visiting remote indigenous communities to listen. “Sitting in the dirt and talking to people,” Neave explained, “because the use of the internet and technological advances that we see as absolutely essential here are not necessarily available across Australia.”

Welcoming complaints should also be a priority, because it’s free and valuable advice. “Human beings don’t like being criticised, no doubt about it,” Neave acknowledged. “There’s a natural aversion to that, but you can work with staff. The culture of an organisation ought to be to welcome complaints, that means it’s engaged with the community they’re in. Having a culture in an organisation that denies complaints exist is not in the end good for the organisation.”

Organisations that have complaint handling departments should also share the expertise. Neave hopes that eventually government bodies will have a community diaspora of complaint handlers, which has been effective in private sectors. Linking departments can also prevent systemic issues falling through inter-agency cracks.

Neave recommends public servants consider complaints management from a “risk-based perspective”, including admitting liability and correcting it. “There’s a general aversion within organisations due to legal departments,” he notes, but management responsible for complaints should be taking over, not the person who made the mistake.

“You can remove part of the anger on the part of the person complaining if you say ‘yes, we mucked this up’. It’s harder on government departments because you’ve got an issue of ministerial responsibility. Quite often in the head of someone in a state of denial, they don’t want to risk a minister being criticised or embarrassed. That’s part of the risk assessment process,” he said.

The fifth recommendation is to capture those systemic issues and make sure reporting reaches all relevant business areas, including senior leadership.

Contractor complaints are your responsibility

With external contractors offering the most contestable and cost-effective way of delivering some government services, it’s important to consider how outsourcing will impact on quality and complaints from the public. Neave warns that sometimes they may have to modify their systems to ensure services are provided to the most vulnerable.

“If a contractor is doing the work of a government department we think the level of service should be the same as if a government department had actually delivered it. Government agencies have got to take responsibility for the actions of their contractors. We will not tolerate agencies saying, by implication, ‘no that was done by a contractor’,” he said.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection and its external contractors was the focus of one of the ombudsman’s most publicised reports in 2013, addressing suicide and self-harm in the Immigration detention network. Neave says there really wasn’t any other way to provide those services. “Considering the difficulties that Immigration have been operating under, they’ve done a remarkable job with contractors. There has been the odd problem with a contractor, and I know Immigration have changed contractors in certain areas which seems to have led to some improvement.

“I was very impressed with the way Immigration dealt with it [the report] when it was released. They were very receptive to changes, but it was controversial and in a highly political area. It was a body of work that our people did a terrific job, but also the Immigration response was very measured and reasonable.”

The Commonwealth Ombudsman isn’t as well-known an interested player in systemic issues as the Auditor-General for instance, or commissioners in specialist areas. Neave says public servants can sometimes be frightened of the scrutiny. But improving cost efficiency is something agencies are increasingly eager to hear more about.

“We don’t see ourselves as a big-stick organisation.”

“We don’t see ourselves as a big-stick organisation,” he said. “We like to go along and talk to people and convince them that that what we’ve recommended or are going to recommend is acceptable as far as they’re concerned.

“We would welcome departments coming to us and asking ‘would you do an investigation into an area of our activities because we are interested in knowing what you think’. Because within an ombudsman’s office you’ve got enormous experience — the office has been going for nearly 40 years — know-how and approaches to problem solving become part of the DNA of an organisation over a period of time and that can be quite helpful as far as government departments are concerned.”

In some parts of the world, the ombudsman is known as the “defender of the people”. Neave says his office provides assurance to the community that they have a safety net.

“It’s important that the ombudsman be seen in the middle, between government and the community,” he said. “The ombudsman must be careful not to come across just as an advocate. It’s really important for an ombudsman not to take just a philosophical position, rather it should be based on good evidence.”

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.