By Paul Sandford
What is the purpose of complaints’ procedures? Is it to put things right when they go wrong? Should such procedures be designed to ensure that when things do go wrong, they are addressed promptly, lessons are learned and identified errors are not repeated? Should complaints procedures themselves be monitored and if so by whom?
The answers to these questions might be “yes” and/or “one would sincerely hope so”. However, my combined professional experiences have led me suggest that in many instances, such procedures are either self-serving or are geared to ensuring that people are fobbed off or are deterred from complaining in the first place. In some instances, one might more generously suggest that many of those who have responsibility for dealing with complaints are well-intentioned but inexperienced or may simply have lost sight of what was required and become too entrenched in their views.
Complaints procedures are put in place for a purpose. If used correctly they can be very valuable tools for monitoring, identifying difficulties and importantly, ensuring that adequate procedures are in place and that staff are suitably trained so that difficulties do not arise in the first place.
If complaints procedures are not used correctly, matters will take a very different turn, as indeed the example I give below, amply explains. The long-term systemic failures described should not be seen as historic anecdotes. They are indicative of significant failings that are currently being replicated on a daily basis by a multitude of organisations in all sectors.
Working from a completely independent standpoint Roy van den brink Budgen or another ASM Plus associates would be able to address underlying deficiencies and concerns very quickly and not so much make recommendations as help a particular organisation to enact a process of meaningful change that would result in improved service delivery and the saving of considerable sums of money. Our advisory work which in many instances could be completed in a very short period of time would result in immediate very significant amounts of time and money. It would also considerably improve levels of productivity and efficiency and ensure that the by no means insignificant sums of compensation that some organisations routinely pay out would be reduced to a minimum.
At one point in my UK legal practice between 2001 and 2004 when I was acting for a considerable number of UK Social Security claimants, I found myself having to deal with very significant numbers of errors on the part of one particular London Local Authority, which for reasons of tact and diplomacy I will refer to as London Borough of Oakdale.
After initially having had to deal with Oakdale for a few weeks, I detected a trend whereby even the merest hint of a concern resulted in one of my letters being treated as a complaint with two particular effects: –
1) the letter would trigger a three-stage complaint process;
2) all of Oakdale’s energies would then then be directed to resolving the three-stage complaint at the expense of looking at the substantive, underlying concerns.
The net effect of this was that many people who had not had their housing benefit paid accrued very substantial rent arrears and were being threatened with eviction, sometimes by the Oakdale housing department whose personnel appeared to be oblivious to possible failures on the part of some of their colleagues in other departments. As one might expect this resulted in sometimes very vulnerable and infirm people fearing for their futures and coming very close to being street homeless. None of my clients got evicted but there were some very close calls.
At some point, possibly weeks later after my “complaint” had been acknowledged I would invariably receive a “stage I response” from the section or department that was the subject of the “complaint” simply rejecting any contentions of wrongdoing and referring me to the “independent” stage II. At this point, a high calibre, well intentioned senior council officer would look at the case. Not infrequently, this officer would recommend that matters be rectified but only after a further period of many weeks had elapsed. In the course of such a hiatus I would frequently have to write to or telephone the relevant officer and re-emphasise any underlying urgency.
In many instances, the failures on the part of a particular officer or officers would be accepted and a heartfelt apology would be offered. However, those dealing with Oakdale’s stage II complaints were not permitted to offer anything other than the most derisory level of compensation, usually around £20. People who had indeed come close to eviction and/or whose health may well have suffered as a result of Oakdale’s failures found themselves then having to pursue matters to stage III.
At this stage, either the chief executive or one of his immediate staff would review the matter and after further weeks of delay along a further letter and would be written reiterating the apology and offering an improved but nonetheless not really adequate sum in compensation. In every single instance that I dealt with, this fell far short of the levels of compensation that had been strongly recommended by the Local Government Ombudsman. Dealing with these complaints meant having to issue frequent reminders and I found that often, the separate complaint file that I had opened was bigger and thicker than the original file. The not insubstantial fees that I quite justifiably incurred were paid by the quite separate legal aid agency and no mechanisms existed for any such monies to be recouped from authorities such as Oakdale.
Many complaints would not get as far as stage III simply because my clients were so fed up with things that they could not bear the attendant delays. It also appeared that Oakdale never learned from its mistakes and over the course of a few months I saw clear and, in some instances, very stupid errors being repeated time and time again in different cases. In a few instances, even after the whole complaints process had been exhausted and remedial steps had been identified, matters were still not put right and the whole process had to start all over again. Small wonder that many of my clients ventured the opinion that “Oakdale could not care less”.
Because I realised how unwieldy the system operated by Oakdale was, I began to very pointedly write initial letters headed “this is not a complaint – do not refer to the complaints procedure until the substantive issue has been resolved”. Many such entreaties were simply ignored with some officers giving the distinct impression they could not care less.
Imagine my surprise one day when my principal solicitor called me into her office and said that Oakdale complained about me. The substance of this complaint was either that I was not complaining or that I was not doing so with sufficient frequency. I subsequently spoke to Oakdale’s chief complaints officer who made her displeasure abundantly clear and explained to me that her strategy had been to ensure that all concerns, no matter how big or how small were treated as complaints in order that she and her staff could then demonstrate how effective they were dealing with complaints. These would include very trivial instances that were not worthy of being treated as complaints. This officer neglected to mention that in practice, the underlying significant errors and delays that her strategy had not addressed resulted in routine mistakes and failures being replicated at doubtless enormous cost to both council taxpayers and the Exchequer.
Subsequently Oakdale published figures demonstrating that in the vast majority of instances it dealt with complaints promptly and efficiently. It also claimed that the number of complaints that actually succeeded was very low. Oakdale contended that although it had a high level of complaints inasmuch as it purported to encourage people who were dissatisfied to complain it was doing the right thing.
On one occasion it was even suggested to me that Oakdale was recognising what was termed “residents democratic rights”, this despite the fact that interventions in individual cases by elected Oakdale councillors resulted in prompt imprecise often quite blatantly incorrect responses. Even whilst working as an ostensibly detached, professional individual I found the whole process to be very demanding and even my powers of perseverance were stretched to the limit.
Principal Director of ASM PLUS, civil/commercial, workplace, employment, family and educational mediator and trainer with a judicial/legal background. He has knowledge and expertise in dispute resolution in a wide range of areas and disciplines and mediates online.