Part 2: Auckland Council's approach to managing complaints

Auckland Council: How it deals with complaints.

In this Part, we discuss:

Summary of our findings

The Council has formal policies and processes for managing complaints, which take into account good practice guidelines. The policies and processes are supported by training resources and other systems that help staff to manage complaints. This includes a complaints-recording system (the complaints system) that the Council was updating to support a more comprehensive complaints-management system.

The Council has designed a process that is flexible enough to record all complaints regardless of how they come into the Council and which department manages them, while ensuring that all complaints are handled to a consistent standard.

Staff understanding varied about the importance of complaints to providing excellent customer service. The Council was intending to use the introduction of the new system3 to generate greater awareness and understanding throughout the Council.

The policies and process for managing complaints

The Office of the Ombudsman has published guidelines about preparing and operating an effective complaints process.4 We expected the Council to have formal policies and processes for managing complaints that take these guidelines into account. We expected the policies and processes to provide clear guidance to staff and provide for a consistent process to manage complaints throughout the Council.

Three main components underpin the Council's complaints-handling process:

  • the complaints policy;
  • a business rules document; and
  • the complaints system (for recording complaints).

These three components are supported by:

  • a social media policy that includes guidelines for responding to complaints that might come in through social media, such as Facebook and Twitter;
  • training manuals that describe how to use the complaints system and what to do at each stage of the process (see paragraphs 2.23-2.28);
  • an unreasonable complainant conduct policy that was prepared to help staff manage difficult complainants in a way that reduces the effect on staff and other people; and
  • a business intelligence document to help staff create reports for analysing complaints information (see Part 4).

These policies and other material generally cover all the main elements we expect to see in an effective complaints process that takes the Ombudsman's guidelines into account. In particular, we expect to see a process that makes it easy to complain, responds promptly and effectively, and uses information from complaints to help identify opportunities to improve services. We also expect the policies and other material to create an environment that values complaints, ensures that staff are well trained to handle complaints, and achieves consistency throughout the Council.

Complaints policy

The purpose of the complaints policy is to:

  • provide the Council's definition of a complaint;
  • identify the principles that the Council will apply when dealing with complaints; and
  • explain roles and responsibilities.

The policy sets an expectation that the Council takes complaints seriously, will work with complainants to resolve the issue, and will use their comments as an opportunity to learn and improve Council services.

The complaints policy also sets out a multi-tiered model for managing complaints. In the first instance, frontline staff are expected to try to deal with an issue at the first point of contact. If immediate resolution is not possible, people can make a formal complaint that is assigned to the appropriate department to resolve (a level 1 complaint).

If the complainant is still dissatisfied or if the complaint is particularly complex or sensitive, the complaint can be escalated to a level 2 complaint. If a resolution cannot be obtained, the complainant can appeal to the Ombudsman (level 3). We discuss how the Council handles different levels of complaints in Part 3.

The complaints policy applies to all staff and contractors at the Council and council-controlled organisations (except Auckland Transport and Watercare, which have their own complaints processes).

The complaints policy provides a basic foundation for the Council's complaints-handling framework. It is an overarching document that, when read together with other Council documents (such as the business rules document), guides Council staff in handling complaints.

Business rules document

The purpose of the business rules document is to act as a guide for staff when handling level 1 complaints. It applies to any staff who come into contact with a complaint, ranging from a member of the Complaints and Issues Resolution Team to a park ranger. It builds on the foundation established in the complaints policy by setting out the practical steps staff must take when handling complaints.

The document explains each step (as set out in Figure 2), what is required at each step, and what to record at each step. The document also contains links and references to training resources that provide more detailed guidance to assist decision-making.

Figure 2
Auckland Council's complaints-handling process

Figure 2, showing eight steps from receiving a complaint through logging it, assigning it, investigating, responding, and closing it.

Source: Office of the Auditor-General.

The document also sets out the roles and responsibilities of those involved in the complaints-handling process. The Complaints and Issues Resolution Team, within Customer Services, has oversight of the complaints-handling process. The team is responsible for problem-solving, system updates, quality checking, and reporting.

Operational departments have a department liaison person who is responsible for taking care of the complaints that come into their department. Staff from the Mayor's office, the Chief Executive's office, local boards, and Democracy Services (councillor support advisors) are described as Hub members. The role of the Hub member is to manage complaints that come to them directly from the public.

In our view, the business rules document clearly sets out each step from receiving to closing a complaint. It clearly explains the steps in the process and aligns them to the relevant recording procedure for each step.

The system for recording complaints data

A well-designed recording system for complaints data helps entities to record, store, track, manage, and report on all complaints. We expected the Council to have a recording tool to help it manage complaints consistently.

The Council had a tool for recording customer interactions, including complaints information. For simplicity, we have called it the complaints system. The complaints system was rolled out when the Council was set up in 2010. The complaints system was intended to provide a single Council-wide system for logging and managing complaints but it had limitations. It did not provide a complete reporting tool and it did not record comprehensive customer interaction information, such as compliments received about Council staff or services.

At the time of our audit, the Council had a project under way to, among other changes, improve its customer relationship management system. This included improving how complaints would be logged, monitored, and tracked. According to the Council, the new system would allow the Council to report on more information than it could currently report on, such as the volume of reassigned complaints. The new system went live after we had completed our audit.

Training and ongoing support

The business rules document explains what staff need to do at each step of the complaints process. The skills that staff need for decision-making are gained through experience, training, and ongoing support.

To supplement the formal policies and guidance, the Complaints and Issues Resolution Team provides induction and continuous training and support to staff involved in the complaints-handling process. In particular, it trains customer service representatives, department liaisons, and Hub members. Specific and tailored training material is available for department liaisons, local board staff, and other Hub members to take account of their particular needs and the circumstances that they might encounter when dealing with complaints that are unique to their roles.

Any member of staff can access the training resources through the business rules document and the staff intranet.

Staff can contact the Complaints and Issues Resolution Team for support at any time they need it. This might be in response to a specific complaint or for more general support and advice on the complaints process.

Some staff we spoke to confirmed that they had received complaints training at induction, and most thought that the training was good. However, they gained their experience through doing their job. They appreciated the support that they received from managers and the Complaints and Issues Resolution Team while handling complaints.

The Council makes a range of training resources available to staff. Tailoring materials to address the needs of particular users of the complaints-handling process is appropriate. Based on what we were told, the training is considered useful. In our view, access to the Complaints and Issues Resolution Team for help with specific issues as they arise is a valuable resource for staff.

Ensuring consistency throughout Auckland Council

Because of the range of complaints about the Council's departments and services, the Council needs a process that is flexible enough to ensure that all complaints are handled to a consistent standard, regardless of where or how the complaints are received or which department is responsible for managing them.

Flexibility is provided through the business rules document. This defines different requirements for some process steps that take account of the circumstances of people in different roles in the organisation. For example, a section in the document has different requirements for referring or managing complaints depending on whether staff are Hub members or department liaisons.

Similarly, the Building Control department is required under the Building (Accreditation of Building Consent Authorities) Regulations 2006 to have a process for receiving and managing complaints about building control functions. Building Control has designed its process to be as consistent as possible with the wider Council process.

Training material is also tailored for the same reason. For example, there are different training manuals for department liaisons and local boards.

Although the requirements of some process steps differ, the Council tries to maintain consistency by ensuring that all complaints go through the same process steps and by requiring that all information about complaints is recorded in a single recording system.

In our view, the Council has designed a consistent process for managing complaints that takes into account the needs of the different business groups.

Staff understanding of the importance of complaints

The Office of the Ombudsman states that complaints are a legitimate and necessary part of the relationship between entities and the public. How well an entity deals with complaints can show how committed it is to providing a high-quality service to people. We wanted to know how well staff understood the importance of complaints.

The Complaints and Issues Resolution Team told us that it has worked hard in the last two years to change the Council's culture. It said that it is noticing that departments are beginning to see and understand the benefits of having a robust and consistent complaints-handling process.

However, we found that the level of understanding about how complaints are an essential part of providing excellent customer service varied. Comments we heard from staff ranged from those who saw complaints as "a gift" to those who felt that handling complaints was not part of their job.

Given the amount of change the Council has gone through since 2010 – in particular, designing and implementing a comprehensive complaints process to replace eight different complaints-handling processes – we did not expect that everyone would clearly understand everything.

In our view, the Council needs to do more work to increase understanding about the importance of complaints. We encourage the Council to use the introduction of the new system to increase understanding and awareness of the complaints process throughout the Council.

3: The new customer relationship management system does not include Watercare or Auckland Transport, which have their own systems.

4: Office of the Ombudsman (2012), Effective complaint handling and Managing unreasonable complainant conduct: A manual for frontline staff, supervisors and senior managers, Wellington.