Most, if not all, government agencies will receive complaints from members of the public about their provision of services from time to time.

The issue of complaint handling has recently been highlighted by the Victorian Ombudsman as part of the report ‘Councils and complaints – A report on current practice and issues’. While the report focuses on Victorian councils, it addresses a number of issues that are relevant to all government agencies.

It begs the question – are your complaint handling procedures adequate?

Desirability of complaint handling procedures

Complaint handling procedures provide agencies and members of the public with a level of certainty about the manner in which complaints will be addressed. In particular, they enable government agencies to ensure complaints are handled promptly, efficiently and consistently across the board.

If government agencies properly follow their complaint handling procedures, it will reduce the likelihood a complaint will be escalated to, or pursued by, an external body (such as a relevant Ombudsman).

It is, therefore, important for all government agencies providing some level of service to the public, to have adequate complaint handling procedures in place.

What is a complaint?

There is no central definition of ‘complaint’, although some pieces of legislation include such a definition.7 It is therefore up to individual government agencies to determine what constitutes a ‘complaint’ for their purposes.

Many government agencies will distinguish between a ‘request for service’ and a ‘complaint’. While the distinction may sometimes be a grey one, the following examples used by the Victorian Ombudsman in the local government context are informative:

  • a ‘request for service’ might be a member of the public contacting a council advising there is a pothole and asking that someone be sent to fix it
  • a ‘complaint’ might be a member of the public contacting a council stating they reported a pothole six weeks ago and it still has not been fixed.

Absent of such a distinction, government agencies may find that the majority of inquiries being made are, strictly, to be treated as ‘complaints’ under their procedures. This may place a significant burden on government agencies and clearly goes beyond what is intended, or indeed expected.

A clear definition of ‘complaint’ should, therefore, be included in all complaint handling procedures.

Content of complaint handling procedures

The content of complaint handling procedures can vary widely from one government agency to the next. The Victorian Ombudsman, in her report, has identified a number of matters which should be addressed, including the:

  • definition of ‘complaint’
  • manner in which complaints will be assessed, determined and addressed at first instance
  • internal review of complaints, where a complainant is dissatisfied with the initial response to their complaint
  • independence of those assessing, determining and addressing complaints, both at first instance and upon internal review.

These matters should form the ‘backbone’ of complaint handling procedures adopted by government agencies. Each agency should seek to include further detail intended to tailor their complaint handling procedure to their specific needs.

Other considerations

Once clear complaint handling procedures have been prepared and adopted, to ensure their effective implementation, it will be relevant for government agencies to also consider:

  • how they collect and analyse complaint data – this includes a consideration of any privacy issues (such as the ability of complainants to remain anonymous) and whether there is a centralised recording systems for complaints
  • the preparation and adoption of key performance indicators – such as reducing the number of substantiated complaints and internal reviews over time
  • how they will manage unreasonable conduct on the part of a complainant – this might form part of the complaint handling procedure or the basis of a separate guidance document
  • the manner in, and ease with, which complaint handling procedures will be available to members of the public – in particular whether they are easily accessible on a government agency’s website.

Unless these additional matters are addressed, the utility of government agencies’ complaint handling procedures will be limited.

What does this mean for you?

It is important all government agencies that do not have a complaint handling procedures in place immediately prepare and adopt one. For those government agencies that do have a complaint handling procedure in place, it should be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure it adequately addresses the matters outlined above and meets the government agency’s particular needs.

The Victorian Ombudsman’s report can be found here.