Auditor-General's overview

Ministry of Social Development: How it deals with complaints.

How well an organisation deals with complaints shows how committed that organisation is to providing a high-quality service to its clients. Dealt with correctly, complaints can help an organisation to change and improve.

As part of our 2013/14 work programme, we decided to look at how the Accident Compensation Corporation and the Ministry of Social Development (the Ministry) manage complaints. This report sets out the findings from a performance audit of the complaints processes of the Ministry. I wanted to assess how effectively and efficiently the Ministry manages complaints.

The Ministry is the largest public service department in New Zealand. It administers more than $20 billion in government expenditure and provides services to help more than 1.1 million people and 110,000 families.

My staff looked at how the Ministry's Work and Income, StudyLink, and Senior Services sections manage complaints. I also commissioned a survey and interviews of a sample of people who had made a complaint to the Ministry. I felt that it was important to collect the views of the people who complained.

Most of those surveyed felt that their complaint was resolved and the Ministry's final decision about the complaint was fair. Most of those surveyed and interviewed felt that it had been worthwhile complaining to the Ministry. In my view, the way the Ministry deals with complaints has many positive features. These include:

  • making it reasonably easy for people to complain;
  • dealing with problems early and at an appropriate organisational level;
  • staff acting professionally and giving people the opportunity to say all that they wanted to say, as well as correctly understanding the person's complaint;
  • a focus on resolving complaints; and
  • changing some practices as a result of complaints and other comments.

The Ministry could do better in some aspects. Those surveyed and interviewed suggested that the Ministry improve communication with complainants, including by:

  • explaining more clearly to complainants the process and time frame for resolving complaints, so that expectations are managed;
  • keeping people well informed about how their complaint is being dealt with; and
  • informing the complainant of any action taken to improve service delivery as a result of the complaint.

The Ministry acknowledged early in our audit that it does not have a Ministry-wide approach to managing complaints. Each of the major sections of the Ministry runs its own process. As is to be expected when each section runs its own process, the Ministry manages complaints inconsistently and monitors and reports on information about complaints inconsistently.

Although some customisation can be sensible, a lack of consistency in the overall approach means that the Ministry cannot gain a complete picture of how many complaints it receives and resolves, and how well it responds to people who complain. This makes it more difficult to see where any systemic problems might lie.

The Ministry is looking to change to a single operating model to better meet people's needs. It has a project under way to identify how complaints could be better managed under this model, and has welcomed our suggestions for improvements.

We have recommended that the Ministry continue on its path to work on a Ministry-wide approach to managing complaints. This will help the Ministry to better oversee complaints, help make managing and reporting of complaints more consistent, and help with making decisions. It will make it easier for the Ministry to use complaints as part of efforts to continuously improve its systems and services.

The Ministry has recently joined Senior Services and StudyLink with Work and Income. This provides the Ministry with a good opportunity to act on my recommendations.

I thank the Ministry and its staff for their time and co-operation with this audit. I thank the people who participated in the survey and interviews – your contribution was important to this audit.

Signature - LP

Lyn Provost
Controller and Auditor-General

6 August 2014

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