Victorian councils understating complaints

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 new Ombudsman’s report.

The Revisiting Councils and Complaints report tabled this week by Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass surveyed all of 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

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.

Ms Glass asked the councils how they define complaints and how many complaints they received in the last calendar year, among other questions.

Some councils could not say how many complaints they had received; others adopted a narrow definition. For example, only 34% of councils said they would consider it a complaint, as opposed to a 'request for service', if a person rang to say their bin hadn't been emptied the night before as scheduled.

"Far too many councils still adopt a narrow definition of complaint or interpret it narrowly in practice," Ms Glass said. "This matters. Not only is it impossible to compare the councils, those who understate the level of public dissatisfaction may well be failing to deal with it."

Ms Glass said one of the main causes of complaints about councils to her office was the way councils dealt with complaints. "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.

"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."

Ms Glass has provided 79 summaries of how each council says it deals with complaints. Her survey produced some incongruous results, for example Melbourne City Council said it received 88 complaints in 2018 while one of Victoria's smallest shires - Ararat Rural City Council - said it received 1,180.

"I recognise that councils may have concerns about recording and reporting complaints, particularly when complaints data is used to criticise council services. But it is not a solution to disguise the true level of community dissatisfaction by labelling it as a 'request for service' or 'matter with a statutory right of appeal', instead of recognising is as a 'complaint'.

"I also acknowledge that many councils' IT systems affect their ability to record complaints, and it is encouraging to see some councils working on upgrades to complaints management systems."

Ms Glass's enquiry is a follow up to her 2015 report into how councils handle complaints. She said more councils now have policies for how complaints should be handled; more councils accept complaints by a variety of methods (eg by phone, letter, email and online), and the information provided to the public on how to complain is better.

However, many councils still needed to make their complaint systems more accessible, by providing information in simpler language, adopting tools that make it easier for people with a disability to make a complaint, and introducing translation and interpretation services.

The report is available here.

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