How well do Victorian councils deal with complaints?

How well do local councils in Victoria
deal with your complaints? That’s the question we sought to answer
in my latest enquiry. We’ve found for years that one of the main causes of complaints
about local councils is in fact the way those council deal with complaints. All too often complaints are seen as a nuisance or provoke an unhelpful,
defensive, bureaucratic response. This can fuel people’s grievances
rather than address them. Actually complaints are free feedback. They’re a great way for
councils to find out how the public thinks they should improve their service. What we wanted to check was whether councils were making it easy to complain,
responding to complaints effectively and learning from complaints to improve
services. We found some positives. Compared to a few years ago, more
councils have targets for responding to complaints promptly, tell people how they
can ask for a review of a decision, and have complaint handling policies and
provide training to staff. We also found areas where councils
need to improve. A key problem is councils have no common definition of what a complaint is. We think it should cover any expression of dissatisfaction – that’s what the
Australian Standard for complaints management says. But too many councils
adopt a narrow definition of a complaint. For example, only about 30 percent of
Victoria’s 79 councils said a resident who reported their bin had not been
emptied was making a complaint. But a lot of complaints about missed bins will tell a council something about
its service provider and give them a chance to fix it – to
provide a better service to the community. Too many councils say that
they’re simply ‘requests for service’ and shouldn’t count as complaints, the risk
here is that those who understate the level of public dissatisfaction,
may well be failing to deal with it. I’ve recommended a range of
measures to support councils in handling complaints better, including: changes to
legislation to include a broad definition of a complaint and to require
councils to manage and resolve complaints; updating our guide for councils
on how to best handle complaints, and to provide more information
about human rights and accessibility. There needs to be a change
in mindset about complaints. Complaints are a good thing. Councils with high numbers
of complaints aren’t doing worse they’re probably better at letting their
communities know how to complain to them. Some councils have already embraced
complaints for the free feedback they provide – it’s time for all councils to
recognise this.

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