An interview with Aberdeen City Council
John Stevenson, Complaints Standards Authority (CSA) Officer interviewed Barbara McDonald, of Aberdeen City Council (ACC) to find out about their approach to developing and implementing compliant model complaints handling procedures (CHPs).
Barbara is a Complaints Officer working in the Customer Service and Performance section of the Corporate Governance unit of the council. She was a key member of the Local Authority working group which developed the local authority model CHP.
CSA: In February 2011 we published ‘Guidance on a Model Complaints Handling Procedure’; how did the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) guidance influence the council in its approach to complaints at that time?
ACC: In February 2011, alongside the move to our new accommodation in Marischal College, we were preparing for a major restructure in the provision of our customer service. From June last year we implemented a more centralised face to face and telephone customer service. Once staff were physically in place one of the first things we looked at was how we could record complaints corporately. We began looking for a system to support this and most importantly, one which could produce meaningful, accurate statistics on complaints, which would identify trends and issues where we could improve our service delivery.
CSA: How has your involvement in the SPSO’s working group charged with designing the model CHP for the local government sector benefited the council?
ACC: I have been involved with complaints handling since 1999. I was interested in how we could streamline the process and ‘close off’ complaints more efficiently. I believe our council has dealt with customer dissatisfaction well in the past. However, we are not so good at being able to prove this. Being involved with the CHP working group from the beginning has enabled Aberdeen City Council to be pretty well advanced with its implementation programme.
CSA: Turning now to the introduction of the Local Authority Model CHP in March 2012, can you say something about how your involvement in the Local Authority working group has helped in the council’s plans to introduce the model CHP?
ACC: By being part of the group has put me in a position whereby I could report back quickly after the regular CHP meetings and Aberdeen City Council was able to act swiftly on planning, preparing and executing various projects to enable implementation of the new CHP.
CSA: What challenges are you facing in ACC in relation to change management and how are you managing these?
ACC: We need to ensure that staff are able to recognise a complaint so that it can be properly logged. Staff need to be reassured that they do deal with complaints at the frontline, the only real difference is that we need to be able to prove this by recording and reporting outcomes and improvements.
We have developed an online training course specifically related to the identification and action required when dealing with frontline complaints
Our social work colleagues raised concerns about retaining client confidentiality on a corporate complaints database. We have resolved this to their satisfaction by restricting access to a small team of social work complaint handlers.
CSA: How have you kept staff informed and up to date on the changes?
ACC: Last year presentations were given to our extended corporate management teams and senior management teams. Feedback teams have been created for each service. These teams have been trained to use Covalent (the council IT system) and are responsible for the administration of their service complaints. We had our first operational team meeting at the beginning of June to discuss areas of concern. The four CHP documents were circulated to members of the senior management team and feedback teams on receipt.
CSA: How has the council’s senior management team responded to the introduction of the CHP?
ACC: Our chief executive decided very quickly how she wanted the investigation responses to be dealt with which made it easy for us to implement.
Our management team have been particularly supportive in the development of our Unacceptable Actions Policy and are keen to see it implemented soon.
CSA: In terms of planning to introduce the model procedures, can you tell me about the key challenges and how you have overcome, or plan to overcome these?
ACC: One of the key challenges has been the roll out and training on Covalent. We do not have a training team as such so we hope to implement a train the trainer approach.
Also the development of a simple online training course on the identification of complaints.
We have developed template letters, some in the style of individual directors to make the process more efficient. Covalent is also able to produce a list of all relevant documentation to assist directors in their signing off of Investigation complaints.
CSA: What do you think will be the main benefits of adopting the model CHP, for customers and for the Council?
ACC: Two stage processes reduce the time (and resources) spent on dealing with complaints. Best practice is for councils to offer redress early on in the process if we are in the wrong, bringing complaints to a swift closure however, many complaints end up with protracted correspondence because the complainant fails to accept the outcome reached by the council.
The two stage process allows us to reach the independent review stage (and full closure) sooner. As an add on, whilst looking at complaints handling, we have also looked and how we record Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, member’s enquiries and general enquiries and have made improvements to the way we administer these.
CSA: What are your plans to inform customers of the change to the procedure?
ACC: We adopted the two stage process on 1 April 2012 and amended our website page at that time. We are currently working on the branding of the CHP documents and when this has been completed, we will update our website with the customer facing document.
We have held awareness sessions for our councillors after the May elections and held awareness sessions with tenant and sheltered housing groups.
CSA: What advice would you give other councils as they plan to introduce the local authority model CHP?
ACC: Make sure that the software package you choose can produce the reports you require. Try to reassure staff who are concerned about meeting the five day deadline that these complaints are simple, straightforward and most likely the type of issue they are already dealing with.
CSA: What systems or processes do you have in place to learn from complaints?
ACC: We plan to produce our first set of reports after the first quarter end (June 30th) and analyse what they show. When these reports are available then we will direct our focus on the learning. Up until now the focus has been on recording and training
CSA: When do you expect the council to be fully compliant with the requirements of the Model CHP?
ACC: We plan on having the new CHP fully embedded by the end of year one so that we start year two with ideas on how to refine/improve/expand what we have put in place so far.