An interview with Aberdeenshire Council
The SPSO’s Complaints Standards Authority (CSA) established a working group to design a model Complaints Handling Procedure (CHP) for the local government sector. John Stevenson, CSA Officer spoke to Morag Esson, Customer Service Manager/Project Manager at Aberdeenshire Council (AC) about their experience of planning for implementation.
CSA: In February 2011 the Ombudsman published Guidance on a Model Complaints Handling Procedure. How did the guidance influence the council’s approach to complaints at that time?
AC: The general approach of the centralised complaints team remained unchanged as a result of the guidance – however it did provide the team with a tool to highlight to services the importance of reading the trend reports created by the complaints team for them and the importance of reviewing issues which continue to occur, especially when this is an area which Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) will review in the future.
CSA: Can you tell us something about why you volunteered to work with the SPSO to design the Model CHP for the local government sector, and the benefits that has brought to AC?
AC: I just felt it was a great opportunity for the council to be involved in shaping how the model should look, and also would mean that we could voice any concerns over the model which we felt would not work. It has just made it easier to plan the implementation as being part of the model working group has allowed us to clearly understand what will be required from us in resource terms to implement the new two stage procedure.
CSA: Turning now to the introduction of the local authority Model CHP in March 2012, how has your involvement in the local authority working group helped in the council’s plans to introduce the model CHP?
AC: I have a clearer understanding of what is required as I think a lot of the conversation at these meetings became very in-depth and there is perhaps the possibility that some of the required changes may be lost in just reading the documentation provided.
CSA: Change management can be difficult in any organisation particularly when it involves a change of culture. What challenges are you facing and how are you managing these?
AC: I think the fact that we already have a centralised team does make things easier from an implementation viewpoint – although we still have more engagement to undertake with some of our services to encourage more usage of the centralised team (especially the more specialised areas).
I think the biggest challenge from our perspective is training people to log details of when they have resolved a complaint at first point – and to get the message across that receiving a complaint shouldn’t be seen as a negative thing as mistakes happen, but the important thing is how we approach resolving the complaint… it’s effectively about removing the “blame culture” connotations.
Plus the practicalities of training will also be challenging due to the amount of first point offices we have from a face to face and telephone perspective in our geographic area, but this training is key to ensuring the new two stage process is a success.
CSA: How have you kept staff informed and up to date on the changes? How have staff responded?
AC: Full details of the change haven’t been cascaded yet to staff. We are currently working on the implementation plan at present, with a briefing note already provided to our senior management team and a full report in the process of being completed at present.
I think that the new process will be less confusing for staff and customers in one sense, as it is taking away a number of stages from our existing complaints procedure so is much easier to understand – however the frontline resolution will (I feel) require clear guidance to staff as to when they would use this category or when it would be an investigation complaint, as the five working days would appear to contradict the “frontline resolution” requirement if being viewed from a staff perspective and this could cause real confusion if not handled appropriately.
CSA: Tell me about senior management support for the model CHP based upon your contributions to the working group.
AC: In general, they support the model, as it makes it easier for our customers to understand the process, and the reduction in levels also means less administration and associated costs. However there are some areas where they feel that the model may not fully appreciate the complexity of the incoming complaint. We plan to discuss our concerns with the SPSO’s CSA.
CSA: In terms of planning the introduction of a model CHP, what key challenges do you face and how do you plan to overcome these?
AC: As detailed in my response to question 4, the biggest challenge from our perspective is training people to log details of when they have resolved a complaint at first point – and to get the message across that receiving a complaint shouldn’t be seen as a negative thing as mistakes happen, but the important thing is how we approach resolving the complaint. Additionally, our large geographic area and multiple offices also create additional challenges from a training perspective.
Training will be delivered in two blocks: one which is targeted as a briefing session for senior/middle managers who may be involved in the investigation of a complaint, and the second which is targeted to the frontline staff who will be accepting the majority of the incoming complaints.
The latter training session will be the most challenging due to the volumes of staff involved, and that fact that we must complete this training as close to the live date as possible to ensure that training outcomes are fresh in the minds of trainees. This training requires us to cover how to differentiate between frontline and investigation complaints, the encouragement of logging frontline resolutions including the positive benefits it can deliver to them and their service, and the process involved in actually logging the complaint (which will simply involve the completion of a straightforward form for completion on our intranet).
We have commenced discussions with service champions to help us identify who requires to be trained, and then we aim to complete a matrix on the best way to undertake the training – in some cases, it may be mixed training sessions in a classroom setting, however for other services it may be best to complete the training in the office with the staff so a mixture of options will be available. We also aim to link into the SPSO online training package.
CSA: What do you think will be the main benefits of the model CHP, for customers and for the council?
AC: Customers – much easier process to follow, with less stages therefore it’s easier for the customer to make the complaint, and the complaint will be dealt with quicker.
Council – less administration costs involved, especially for those that reach our level 3 complaint response which can see a high level of staff involvement. However we effectively now only have one chance to resolve the complaint, but I feel that is a positive for the council and the centralised Feedback Team will assist and support the service in the resolution of all complaints.
CSA: How will you inform customers of the change to the procedure?
AC: The main ways will be through the website, and also through our complaint forms so it will clearly show the change in procedure.
We also require to discuss and clarify with SPSO how we deal with complaints that are potentially commenced in (what will become) our old three level process that currently exists – as do they remain in this process, or do all active complaints require to then move onto the new two stage model?
CSA: What advice would you give other councils as they plan to introduce the model CHP?
AC: For those councils that were involved in the working group, I feel that they will be able to implement the model easier – for those that weren’t, I would suggest contacting a council who was in attendance at these meetings and who has already implemented the new model as they can learn from their implementation plan (especially with regards to the training and clarification of frontline versus investigation).
CSA: The key to a successful complaints system is one where lessons are learned effectively and regularly. What systems or processes do you have in place to learn from complaints?
AC: The centralised Feedback Team produce high level monthly reports for the senior management team and in-depth monthly reports on a service by service basis – both these reports contain a summary trend analysis spreadsheet which highlights the re-occurring issues for the individual services. The Feedback Team is then tasked to work with services on these issues, and see where procedure changes or even policy changes could (and should) be made to improve services for our customers. A recent example is concerning our winter maintenance programme – we are looking into the possibility of (a) putting some for of platform in place which allows customers to report issues to ourselves but also aim to push out alerts to customers when roads in a specific area are extremely difficult and (b) look at the back office systems in place to support such a customer facing platform. This is all purely at discussion phase just now but we are keen to improve communication with customers during our spells of extreme weather.
CSA: When do you expect the council to be fully compliant with the requirements of the model CHP?
AC: We are working towards to live date of end September 2012 if the implementation plan is agreed by the senior management team.
To tell us about your organisation’s experience of implementation, please contact the CSA Team by email at firstname.lastname@example.org