Part 4: Improving processes and services

Auckland Council: How it deals with complaints.

In this Part, we discuss:

Summary of our findings

Information about the Council's complaints handling is available to senior managers. The executive leadership team also receives a monthly report that describes complaints activity.

The Council needs to collect, analyse, and report information that is more comprehensive about how it handles complaints – in particular, information from the complainant's perspective and information that will be available when the new system is fully implemented. The current lack of information means that the Council cannot fully assess the effectiveness of its complaints handling. The Council needs to systematically review enhanced performance information to assess how effectively it deals with complaints and identify potential improvements to its complaints-handling process.

The Council has used complaints and other comments to identify and inform improvements to its services. There are some good examples of this, including analysing and using information to improve services at a systems level.

The Council could do more to inform the public and staff about improvements it makes as a result of complaints and other information. This would increase confidence that the Council takes complaints seriously and acts on them.

Reporting complaints information to senior management

The Australian National Audit Office states that reporting to senior management helps give complaints management a relatively high profile in the organisation and underlines the expectation that appropriate corrective action will be taken when necessary.7 We expected Council staff to report complaints information to senior management so that they can monitor performance and identify potential actions to improve the Council's complaints-handling process.

The Complaints and Issues Resolution Team offers business intelligence reports to departments about all complaints received. Departments can use these reports to generate information that is specific to their area or the services they provide. In practice, not all departments regularly or systematically request or review this information. Not all departments are aware that this information is available.

The executive leadership team receives a monthly report on all complaints. These reports are generated by the Customer Service Performance Team using data in the complaints system. Each report includes information about the number of complaints received in a specific period, the topic of complaints, root causes,8 complaints by department, and performance against the service level agreement. The Finance and Performance Committee receives a summary of these reports every three months, which is publicly available on the Council's website under the committee's agendas and minutes.

Other reporting activities include:

  • the executive leadership team receives a verbal weekly briefing on complaints and other customer issues from the Director, Transformation. The team also regularly meets to discuss high-risk issues;
  • the Chief Executive has a weekly briefing and discussion of complaints with his team. He also receives reports from an executive officer dedicated to issues resolution, as does the Chief Operating Officer;
  • a Legal/Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act/Communications group of senior staff also meet weekly to discuss high-risk issues; and
  • senior managers at the departmental level review and report on trends and complaints relevant to their department.

However, these reports do not tell the Council about the complainants' perspective of its complaints handling. Therefore, the Council cannot fully assess how effectively it handles complaints.

In our view, the Council needs to collect, analyse, and report information that is more comprehensive about how it handles complaints – in particular, information from the complainant's perspective and information that will be available when the new system is fully implemented.

Senior management needs to systematically review this enhanced performance information to more accurately assess the effectiveness of the complaints-handling process and identify potential improvement actions. Doing so might also satisfy some of the information gaps we identified in Part 3. For example, information from a complainant's perspective could inform views on whether closed complaints have been fully resolved and whether complainants' expectations are being effectively managed.

In paragraph 2.39, we encouraged the Council to use the introduction of the new system to increase understanding and awareness of the complaints process throughout the Council. In our view, the executive leadership team systematically reviewing enhanced performance information will support efforts to increase understanding and awareness of the value of complaints by demonstrating that the Council's senior managers place importance on how well the Council handles complaints.

Recommendation 1
We recommend that Auckland Council collect and review information that is more comprehensive, including information from a complainant's perspective, and use it to assess how effectively and efficiently the Council handles complaints and identify potential actions to improve the complaints process.

Using complaints and other information to inform service improvements

The Council has recognised that it is important to learn from complaints, so as to prevent complaints from repeating or from arising in the first place. We expected the Council to use information from complaints and other feedback to help improve the quality of its services.

The Council has used complaints information recorded in the complaints system to help identify the need for improvements to its services. For example, data can be used to identify service areas where the Council has received a high volume of complaints.

The design of improvement actions draws on a variety of other research, including satisfaction surveys, interviewing people (including those who have complimented the Council), benchmarking analysis, speech analytics, and staff feedback. Taken together, these help the Council to understand what people are saying about its services and what the Council needs to be concerned about.

Examples of improvements

We saw examples where information from complaints and other comments had informed improvements. These included:

  • leaving calling cards explaining to people what has been done and who to contact for inquiries;
  • re-designing website pages to be more user-friendly;
  • developing better information for people about service areas;
  • changing Council processes;
  • providing continuous training to staff; and
  • improving the Council's intranet to provide staff with better information.

Rates have been a big issue. In an attempt to address this, the Council has taken a proactive approach towards rates communications through its "rates campaign". The Council now contacts people with large rates increases by letter and telephone to explain the reasons for the size of their rates increase.

Acting on systemic issues

The Australian National Audit Office identified the benefits of entities analysing the root causes of complaints to gain an understanding of the systemic causes of complaints.9 We expected the Council to use complaints to identify systemic issues and act on those issues to improve services.

To identify systemic issues, an organisation needs to study its systems to go through a process of understanding what and where the real problem is. As one staff member told us, the "problem could be quite different once you actually get in and unearth what's happening in the business". We saw examples of the Council acting on information, including information gathered through complaints, to address systemic issues to improve its services. Figure 4 gives the example of the Enterprise booking project to improve the process for booking the Council's venues.

Figure 4
Enterprise booking project

A project to redesign the Council's process for booking venues began after complaints and other feedback identified dissatisfaction with the process. Customers expressed dissatisfaction with the number of steps and amount of time it took to make a booking, as well as the condition of some of the venues.
Redesigning the bookings process included taking senior managers through the whole process so they could understand the public's experience. By going through the whole bookings process, the managers discovered how long it took and the unnecessary steps involved. The design team designed solutions and tested them to make sure that the solutions worked for the public.
Within one week of going live on the Council's website, the Council processed more than 43,000 bookings in the system. Customer feedback has been positive. Two different responses noted:
Virtual tours are exceptional. Now I don't have to go and physically view 10 venues and waste the whole day doing it to make a decision – I can sit in front of the computer and choose a venue in 3 minutes. Thank you.
I have activated my online account for venue hire which is very user friendly!
The Council felt that the public feedback showed the sorts of reputation gains and benefits that come when services are made easier to use.

Another example was the "consenting made easy" project that used information from complaints and other feedback to improve the resource consent and building consent processes. These improvements included:

  • bringing the resource and building processes together – for example, by rearranging the Council's website to have a "consents portal" so that information for both types of consents is in one place to simplify the process for people;
  • a fast-track process for approving building consent applications for some housing companies, including an online consenting portal for lodging and paying their consent applications online; and
  • starting to create tailored service streams based on different groups of applicants and their needs.

These examples show how the Council reviewed and analysed its services at a systems level after many complaints and researched people's experience of those services to improve its service delivery processes. Both projects had the support and encouragement of the executive leadership team, which was seen as just as important to the progress of the projects as understanding the public's perspective.

Sharing information with the public and staff

The Council does not publicly report on complaints in its annual report because the service performance framework does not enable overall complaints information to be reported easily.

In paragraph 3.53, we identified comments from the Council's interviews with complainants that showed complainants want some type of explanation of what the Council had done to improve services for them and for others.

Several staff also told us that they were not always aware what happens to complaints they receive and pass on or what the outcome is. Often, staff were not told that changes to processes and policies had been made in response to complaints. Staff thought it would be useful to see what improvements had been made as a result of complaints. They thought this would give them more confidence in the complaints process.

We suggested to the Council that it could report on complaints in the complaints section on its website. This could include the number of complaints received each year, the percentage resolved satisfactorily for the complainant, and examples of improvements made as a result of complaints. In our view, reporting this type of information would help to provide the public and staff with confidence that the Council listens to people, takes complaints seriously, and acts on them. The Council agreed that this could be useful.

Recommendation 2
We recommend that Auckland Council report publicly about the effectiveness of the Council's complaints-handling performance and how it has used complaints information to improve its services.

7: Australian National Audit Office (2012), Management of Complaints and Other Feedback by the Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra.

8: The Council uses the term "root cause" to record the primary reason why people are complaining. It is intended to reflect the customer's perspective, not the Council's. For example, "Our staff behaved unprofessionally or incompetently" or "We weren't helpful or we were confusing".

9: Australian National Audit Office (2012), Management of Complaints and Other Feedback by the Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra.