Councils sweep complaints under the carpet

Victorian councils may be understating the number of complaints they receive because they often classify a complaint as a ‘request for service’, according to a report.

Deborah Glass

The Revisiting Councils and Complaints report tabled by the state ombudsman this week surveyed Victoria’s 79 councils about how many complaints they received in the last year and what they considered a complaint to be.

Two out of three said they wouldn’t consider it a complaint if a resident called to say their bin hadn’t been emptied on garbage night. Only 15 per cent said they would regard a disagreement over a  property valuation as complaint and 36 per cent wouldn’t consider a report about blocked drain a complaint.

The Ombudsman also found some councils omitted whole topics from their definition of complaint – including damaged or faulty infrastructure, general feedback, missed bins and disputes about rates and fines.

Several councils told the Ombudsman they didn’t capture data about complaints or have an official complaints register. One regional council said it was hard to “differentiate between a complaint, service request and a general whinge or grumble”.

Complaint handling biggest source of complaints

The current report follows a 2014 inquiry by the Ombudsman’s office which found one of the main causes of complaints about councils was the way they dealt with complaints, which actually fueled grievances rather than addressed them.

“We found for years that one of the main causes of complaints about local councils is in fact the way those councils deal with complaints,” Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass said.

“All too often complaints are seen as a nuisance, or provoke a defensive, unhelpful, bureaucratic response.

“Complaints are actually a good thing – they are free feedback. Whether about a missed bin, blocked drain, rates notice or parking ticket, they say something about Council services.

Sweeping dissatisfaction under the carpet

Ms Glass said many councils risked failing to deal with community dissatisfaction by adopting a narrow definition of what constitutes a complaint.

“Those who understate the level of public dissatisfaction may well be failing to deal with it,” she said.

“Capturing them as complaints allows councils to consider what may be needed to address systemic patterns of dissatisfaction that may emerge, to improve their service to their communities.”

Twenty per cent of councils had a dedicated complaints officer or team, and of the 67 councils who reported a complaints policy, only 51 said they would publish it on their website.

Not surprisingly, the vagueness around the definition of complaint produced some anomalies in the number of complaints various councils were reporting.

The survey found Melbourne City Council reckoned it received 88 complaints, while Ararat Rural City Council, one of the state’s smallest shires, said it received 1,180.

Overall, Victoria’s metropolitan councils said they received 782 complaints and 94,319 “requests for service” in 2018.

Councils representing outer metropolitan suburbs received 2,319 complaints and 98,020 requests for service, while regional councils recorded 250 complaints and 29,922 requests for service.

Some positives

The report found “some positives since last Ombudsman’s report, with more councils having targets for responding to complaints quickly and implementing complaint handling policies. More were also informing people how to  ask for a review and were providing training to staff.

However there were areas that still needed improvement, Ms Glass said, the main one being the vagueness around the definition of “complaint”.

She recommended legislative change to broaden the definition of a complaint, and a requirement for all councils to have a complaint handling policy and to publicly report complaints.

There also needed to be a cultural shift, Ms Glass said.

“There needs to be change of mindset about complaints. They are a good thing. Councils with high complaints are probably better at letting people know how to provide feedback,” she said.

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One thought on “Councils sweep complaints under the carpet

  1. Hi Deborah In principle I agree with you about finding a way to standardise the definition of a complaint but I would suggest having worked in local government and state government for approx 50 years it will be very difficult to achieve in practice. As for establishing a complaints register in principle I again agree but the money that would be spent in a technology sense to establish it would necessitate in itself a negative response by the public in this era of rate capping. In scrutiising these matters at local government level I would like to suggest also that the same be done for all agencies of the State Government to get a fair and balanced view of Government as a whole. In this regard I am suggesting that to get true picture at the coalface, it may be worth a visit to a couple of Councils and State Government Agencies and sit at the workplace of those officers who deal with these matters day in and day out.

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