Part 3: Making and dealing with complaints

Auckland Council: How it deals with complaints.

In this Part, we discuss how easy it is for people to complain to the Council and how the Council deals with complaints. We discuss:

Summary of our findings

Frontline staff try to resolve an issue then and there. If they cannot, people can make a formal complaint. The Council provides good information in English about how to complain. The Council should consider how to make information more available to people who are not fluent in English. People can complain in various ways, including to any staff member, elected member, or their local member of Parliament. This makes it reasonably easy for people to complain.

The Council monitors and reports on complaints to ensure that they are assigned to a department for investigation. The Council did not monitor and report on how often complaints had been reassigned or referred to another department but expected to be able to do so when the new system was operating. We encourage the Council to monitor and report on reassigned complaints now that the new system has been implemented. In our view, this should enable the Council to identify whether some complaints are being passed between departments without being resolved.

The Council meets the 10-working-day time frame for closing most complaints. Most departments have processes for monitoring the progress of complaints and check to make sure that they met the due date. Complainants interviewed by the Council support our view that the Council deals with most complaints in a timely way.

The Council has good practices for dealing with some of the more difficult complainants or complaints that need to be escalated. We consider that the Council needs to analyse complaints that have been escalated to give it better information about why they are being escalated – whether it is because of the Council's handling of the complaint or reasons outside of its control.

The Council sets expectations about time frames clearly by publishing them on its website. However, if the time frames need to change – for example, if a complaint needs more time to be fully investigated – the Council does not monitor whether the complainant is kept informed about those changes.

The Council's responses to complainants about the outcome of their complaints are clear and easy to understand. However, we consider that the Council should regularly collect and analyse information from complainants about whether they are satisfied with the resolution of their complaint.

Ease of making a complaint

Frontline resolution

The Council aims to resolve matters raised as close to the point of service delivery as possible. Frontline staff try to fix the issue then and there so that the person does not need to make a formal complaint.

If frontline staff fix an issue and prevent a formal complaint being made, the Council's process requires them to retrospectively log the issue into the Council's complaints system. The purpose of this is to ensure that information about the issue is available when the Council analyses complaints.

The Council has a resolution field in the complaints system to record those issues resolved at first contact and then logged retrospectively. However, we heard that staff who fix an issue on the spot sometimes do not log the issue in the system. Because of this, the Council could be losing trend information by not recording all issues. The Council intended to use the roll-out of the new system to increase customer service representatives' understanding of the need to log issues retrospectively.

If an issue cannot be resolved then and there, the person can make a formal complaint.

Providing information

People cannot complain to the Council if they do not know how. We expected the Council to provide information about making complaints in different formats and languages to meet the needs of its diverse population. Information should be clear and communicated in a way that people can understand.

Information about complaints is available and clearly visible on the Council's website under the "Contact us" tab. This includes details of the Council's telephone number, the Council's postal address, links to the online web-form, and details of Council service centres. Some complainants interviewed by the Council confirmed our view that information on the website is "easy to find and navigate".

People who do not have internet access can use the free computers at public libraries.

The Council used to produce brochures about complaints in all service centres, libraries, and local board offices. These had a tear-off pre-paid form so that there were fewer barriers to their return. We were told that people did not readily use the brochures, so they were discontinued. However, the Council continues to provide an alternative paper form that people can fill in or take away.

The Council does not provide information about complaints in languages other than English. Call centre staff we spoke to were aware of, and used, language line and other resources to help them when dealing with people who do not speak English fluently.

In our view, the Council needs to consider how to make its information about complaints more accessible to people who do not speak English fluently. As an example, the Health and Disability Commissioner provides links on its website to copies of people's rights when using a health and disability service and how to complain in 42 languages other than English.5

The Council is aware that it needs to provide information, both about complaints and more generally, that meets the needs of its diverse population. A group called the Diversity Council has been set up and has a programme of work under way to address diversity both within the Council and with the citizens, community, and ratepayers of the Council.

Channels for making complaints

Customers should be able to choose the channel to complain that best suits them, and we expected the Council to offer a range of different complaints channels. These channels should be easy to access and use, and cover different forms of communication (for example, online, written, in person).

The Council has several channels people can use to complain. These include:

  • a web-form on the Council's website that people can complete with the details of their complaint;
  • a local telephone number for the Council's call centre;
  • sending a letter or emailing;
  • making a complaint in person at a Council office, including customer service centres, leisure centres, and local board offices;
  • approaching Council staff, councillors, local board members, or local members of Parliament; and
  • the Council's social media accounts.

We consider that the Council offers a range of different channels people can use to make a formal complaint. The telephone and email are the most-used channels. The Council encourages people to use the telephone or the web-form on its website. Complainants the Council interviewed who used the web-form found it easy to use.

The 09 301 0101 Council telephone number is free to use for residential landlines within the Council's boundaries but is not free for cell phones or toll calls. Complainants the Council interviewed who used the telephone reported that they thought the customer service representatives did a good job and helped the person to complain.

Some Council staff we spoke to told us that, sometimes, people want more assurance that their complaint will be listened to. These people tend to complain in person at Council service centres or directly to councillors, local board members, or a member of Parliament. Council interviews with complainants confirmed that view.

People can complain to the Council through its social media accounts. When we spoke to staff, they could not recall any complaints that had been made through social media.

We consider that, generally, the Council makes it easy for most people to complain by providing information about how to complain and offering a variety of channels to complain through. However, this could be improved by providing information in languages other than English.

Acknowledging complaints promptly

When a person has complained, we expected the Council to promptly acknowledge that it has received the complaint. Complainants interviewed by the Council who complained through the Council's website said that they received an automated or initial response. They appreciated this because it showed them that their complaint was in the system and reassured them that it would be dealt with.

Complainants who complain by telephone receive an acknowledgement immediately and can be given their customer reference number at that time. Complainants interviewed by the Council confirmed that most made a note of the reference number for their complaint, which made it easy to refer to their complaint in their interactions with the Council while their complaint was being handled.

The Council's interviews with complainants indicated to us that the Council acknowledges complaints made by telephone or website in a timely way. However, because of inadequate information, we could not assess whether this was the same for complaints made through other channels. Because email is one of the most commonly used channels for making complaints, the Council should ensure that it also acknowledges complaints made by email in a timely way.

Allocating responsibility for managing complaints

The Council receives more than 4500 complaints a year about a variety of different services that the Council delivers through different departments. All complaints have to be assigned to a department or person to make sure that someone picks up the complaint in the complaints system and resolves it.

We looked at data measuring complaints received by departments. The data showed that, from July 2015 to December 2015, 99.8% of complaints were assigned to a department rather than being left sitting in the complaints system. The Complaints and Issues Resolution Team monitors and picks up any complaints sitting in the system and ensures that they are assigned to the appropriate place.

Where the complaint is initially assigned to depends on where the complaint was received. For example, complaints received by the Chief Executive are assigned to the Chief Executive's office. Complaints received by a department (for example, through a field officer) are assigned to the relevant department.

The person who picks up the complaint then needs to decide whether they are the most appropriate person to manage the complaint or whether they should reassign it to another person or department. The Council has guidelines for this. For example, a complaint about park maintenance received by, and assigned to, the Chief Executive's office will be referred to the relevant Parks department.

We heard from staff that, generally, they understood the process for assigning complaints to the appropriate department or person. If staff are not sure which department or person is the most appropriate to investigate the complaint, they can contact the Complaints and Issues Resolution Team for advice.

However, some staff acknowledged that reassigning a complaint to the appropriate department or person could sometimes be difficult. This risks the complaint being reassigned numerous times, resulting in delays in investigating the complaint.

We were told that this seems to be an issue with complaints referred to Auckland Transport.

Auckland Transport

It seems that some queries and complaints are incorrectly referred to Auckland Transport. We were told that this is because there can be confusion about which organisation is responsible for an issue. For example, Auckland Transport maintains berms but the Council's contractors maintain trees on berms. This can cause queries and complaints to be referred back and forth between the organisations, causing delays in service and frustration for the complainant.

In our 2016 report, Public sector accountability through raising concerns, we noted that, when a complaint or concern involves different entities, it can be difficult for the entities to work out which aspects of the complaint they are responsible for. We encourage the Council and Auckland Transport to continue looking for new ways to improve their connections with each other to make it easier for people to get the help they need.

Watercare Services Limited

The Council also refers relevant complaints to Watercare. There are established channels for referring complaints to Watercare. For example, there is a specific priority telephone number and an email address. The Council does not refer a large number of complaints to Watercare. In the year to 31 March 2016, the Council referred 246 complaints to Auckland Transport. During the same 12 months, it referred 10 complaints to Watercare.

Monitoring and reporting on reassigned complaints

Other than the complaints referred to Auckland Transport or Watercare, the Council does not report on the number of complaints that have been reassigned within the Council. Because of this, the Council cannot fully monitor, report on, or assess how effectively it manages complaints.

The Council told us that the new system would have a reassignment counter that would enable it to monitor and report on reassigned complaints, including how many times a complaint had been reassigned. This should give the Council better information to identify how well it is managing, and where it might need to make improvements to, this part of the complaints process. We encourage the Council to monitor and report on reassigned complaints.

Handling complaints

The person the complaint has been assigned to is responsible for investigating it and determining what might have caused the complainant to raise their concerns. They are also responsible for providing a resolution and communicating this to the complainant. Investigating complaints can range from questioning a manager to understand the nature of a complaint about an individual staff member to subject-matter experts investigating a technical issue.

The Council gets more than 4500 complaints each year, so we did not assess the adequacy of individual investigations.


Investigating and responding to complaints in a timely way can be an indicator of the effectiveness of an organisation's complaints-handling process. The Council operates under a service level agreement of resolving level 1 complaints within 10 working days. We expected the Council to investigate and resolve most complaints within its 10-working-day time frame. We also expected the Council to monitor the progress of complaints against the service level agreement.

We looked at data measuring the Council's performance against the service level agreement. From July 2015 to December 2015, performance varied between departments and some met the service level agreement more consistently than others. This could be for a range of reasons. For example, the complexity of complaints received by departments might significantly vary from month to month, which might mean that some take longer to resolve than others.

This is consistent with what we reported in Public sector accountability through raising concerns. In that report, we noted that, even if the number of total complaints decreases over time, it remains possible for the resources required to resolve individual complaints to increase because they are more complex to deal with.

Also, some departments deal with low volumes of complaints. Failing to meet the service level agreement standard for a single complaint can have a more significant effect on the department's performance against the service level agreement than a similar failure by a department that handles high volumes.

The Council's data told us that the Council's overall performance against the service level agreement ranged from 70% to 88%. Complainants interviewed by the Council confirmed that they received a response to their complaint within the service level agreement time frame. In our view, the Council's overall performance against the service level agreement is reasonable for an organisation as large as the Council that is responsible for delivering such a wide range of services.

Closed and resolved complaints

When a complaint has been investigated, the Council expects staff to send a response to the complainant about the outcome of the investigation. The Council then expects staff to close the complaint as soon as the response has been sent to ensure that they meet the service level agreement time frame. However, staff are also advised to close off the complaint only when the complainant's issue has been resolved.

The Council does not regularly collect information from complainants about whether they are satisfied with the resolution of their complaint.

We were told that, if complainants do not call back about a complaint they have made, some staff take this as an indication that the complainant is satisfied. If a complainant does call back to thank the Council for dealing with their issue, staff take that as an indication that "this shows the system is working".

We did see some examples of staff following up with complainants to make sure that they were satisfied with the resolution offered. We were told complainants appreciated this. However, it was not common practice.

Some complainants interviewed by the Council reported that, although they received a response and their complaint was closed, they were not satisfied that it had been adequately explored or resolved. The Council's research summarised their feedback as feeling that the response was "a little like a tick-box exercise" where the Council "made the right noises" but did not truly understand the complainant's perspective.

Comments from the interviews with complainants showed that complainants want the response to reflect that they have been listened to and heard. Also, as well as an initial response or apology, they wanted some follow-up detailing what the Council had done to improve services for them and for others.

Some frontline staff also said they wanted to know what the Council had done about complaints they received. These staff felt that knowing that complaints had been responded to and resolved would give them more trust and confidence in the complaints-handling process. We agree that this would be useful.

In our reports on how the Accident Compensation Corporation and Ministry of Social Development dealt with complaints, we said that both could inform complainants of the resolution of their complaints better – in particular, by closing the loop by linking complaints to service delivery improvements.

We consider that the Council needs to ensure that the complaints it closes have been adequately resolved from the complainant's perspective. The Council should also make more information available to the public about what it has done in response to complaints. This would assure the public that the Council listens to them and takes their complaints seriously. We discuss the need to collect, analyse, and report information about the complaints process from a complainant's perspective in Part 4.

Escalating complaints

The nature of a complaint or complainant can vary significantly – some are easy to deal with, and others are more complex. We expected the Council's complaints-handling process to have clear levels of escalation for complaints. We also expected the management process for escalated complaints to recognise the need for flexibility in managing these complaints.

Complaints that cannot be handled within the standard service level time frame are categorised as open time frame (level 2) complaints. These can be triggered by a complainant appealing the Council's response to their complaint, significant complexity, or significant risk involved in the complaint.

The Council manages level 2 complaints on a case-by-case basis. This might involve assembling a team of experts from a department or departments liaising with one another. For example, a tier 2 manager might manage highly complex complaints, while the legal team might manage ones with a high reputational risk. We consider that it is appropriate for the Council to involve experts and higher-level management in managing level 2 complaints, and we were told that this approach generally works well.

Our report Public sector accountability through raising concernssaid that it is becoming more common for people to sometimes be forceful in presenting their complaint. To help staff with difficult complainants and protracted or escalated issues, the Council has customer relationship managers who act as a single point of contact for these complainants. This is a good practice because it provides certainty for these complainants and consistency of contact.

Customer relationship managers often meet with the complainant in person to manage the complaint. We were told that this helps them to get a better understanding of the complaint, because there is often a deeper issue underlying the complaint. The customer relationship managers said that this also helps to rebuild the complainant's trust in the Council.

In our view, the Council has good practices for dealing with more difficult complainants or complaints that need to be escalated. However, we consider that the Council needs to analyse complaints that have been escalated to better understand the reasons complaints are escalated – whether it is because of the Council's handling of the complaint or reasons outside of its control.

The Council told us that the new system will enable it to see where a level 1 complaint has been escalated to level 2 more clearly. This was not easily done under the old system. We encourage the Council to monitor and report on escalated complaints as part of implementing the new system.

Other remedies

Complainants can appeal the Council's decision and have their complaint escalated to a level 2 complaint. If complainants are still not satisfied with the resolution offered by the Council, they can ask for an external review by the Office of the Ombudsman (level 3). This is stated on the Council's website.

We saw that the Council's standard written response template gives the complainant the option to contact the Council with further queries either by the supplied telephone number or through its website. Examples of responses sent by some departments sometimes offered the complainant the option to meet in person, as well as a telephone number to call.

We also looked at examples where the Council had advised the complainant of their right to raise their concerns with the Office of the Ombudsman following the level 2 process. This was after the Council had explained the steps it had taken to try to resolve the complaint. We consider that the Council follows an appropriate process.

Managing expectations

The Office of the Ombudsman states that an important step in managing complaints effectively is managing complainants' expectations at the earliest opportunity to minimise the likelihood for disappointment, anger, or frustration.6 We expected the Council to set clear expectations about how it will handle complaints. If those expectations need to change – for example, if more time is required to investigate a complaint – we expected the Council to communicate any changes to the complainant.

As Figure 3 shows, the Council's website clearly identifies when complainants can expect an acknowledgement of, and response to, their complaint.

Figure 3
Setting complainants' expectations

How we manage complaints
Our complaints policy sets out guiding principles for our staff to follow when handling complaints. If you would like further information on this policy, please feel free to contact us.
Depending on your issue, we will either manage this through one of our central teams or work alongside the particular business area involved to seek a resolution.
Our standard response timeframe is an acknowledgement within three working days and a response in 10 working days. However, if the issue needs more time we will let you know and keep you updated.

Source: Auckland Council's website.

Some complaints cannot be handled within the service level agreement time frame and might require an extension. For example, the issue might be particularly complex or require more technical expertise.

The Council has clear guidelines for requesting and approving extensions. We were told that extensions are not granted lightly and must be for a valid reason outside of the Council's control. If an extension is approved, the time frame will be updated to reflect the new end date.

The Council has a "sending interim response" template for staff to use when advising complainants of delays or extensions to time frames for responding to their complaint. We were also told that staff should update the complaint file in the complaints system with a note stating that the complainant has been informed. The department liaison or relevant Council staff member can use this to check what is being communicated with the complainant and make sure that they are being informed.

We observed that staff are aware of the importance of communicating with the complainant when an extension has been granted. However, the Council does not systematically monitor whether staff are keeping complainants informed.

Collecting information about the complainant's perspective of complaints could let the Council know how well it is keeping the complainant informed. We discuss collecting the complainant's perspective of complaints more in Part 4.

Communicating the decision

When a complaint has been investigated and resolved, we expected the Council to communicate the decision on the complaint to the complainant in an appropriate way. The Council's policy documents state that the person managing the complaint is responsible for informing the complainant about the decision.

Responses sent to complainants should be clear and informative, and the decision should be communicated to the complainant using the complainant's preferred communication method. The Council asks complainants what their preferred communication method is when they complain. This is recorded in the complaint file. If a method is not specified, the Council considers a telephone call the best method because it is more informal and allows for discussion.

We saw examples of responses sent by letter, email, and telephone. Letters sent as email attachments were generally used when a formal response was required or where the response was complex and lengthy. In other instances, a telephone call from a subject-matter expert helped to clarify matters. The responses appeared appropriate to us, based on how the complaint had been received and the level of explanation required to answer the complainant's issue.

Clear and informative communication

The Council expects staff to use plain English and to explain to the complainant the outcome of the investigation of the complaint. This applies to written responses and responses communicated by telephone or in person. We saw evidence that the Council provides staff with tools to do this, including a plain English writing guide, pre-populated templates, and peer reviews.

We saw evidence of responses written in plain English, and most of these clearly explained how the Council reached its decision. The content and format of responses we saw were largely consistent. Deviations were made only to meet the specific needs of certain complaints.

Some departments have tailored the response templates to suit the types of complaints they receive and technical advice they need to communicate to the complainant. We saw that these were largely consistent with the Council-wide template.

We consider that the Council's responses to complaints are clear and easy to understand.

5: See

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