Learning to love complaints: the Victorian Ombudsman and good complaints practice

'Learn to love complaints' is the message from Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass to the public sector bodies she investigates. Her office has produced a good practice guide as part of its work to drive improvements in public administration.

It's a useful guide also for other sectors, not least its case studies which also point to the Ombudsman's role in handling complaints from vulnerable and disadvantaged people (see them also at the bottom of the post).

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Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass writes:

Imagine checking your bank account to unexpectedly find a large sum of money missing and that you are down to your last $14. That you are a single parent reliant on the pension for your income. And that your current miserly bank balance is no fault of your own but the result of someone else’s blunder?

What would you do?

The woman left financially bereft had been on a payment plan with a government agency that had mistakenly deducted a double payment from her bank account. When she rang to complain, the agency informed her that it had indeed made a mistake, but wouldn’t process her request for a refund until a number of similar cases had stacked up, so the finance department could clear them in one fell swoop.

All well and good for the finance department’s workplan, but horrifying for the woman left wondering how she would feed the kids. Luckily, she called our office. After we became involved, the agency – as agencies tend to in such situations – saw the error of its ways and agreed to not only issue a refund cheque that day but also speak to its bank to speed up the cheque’s clearance.

That’s a great result but it would have been better if she didn’t have to come to us at all. The Victorian Ombudsman exists to take and investigate complaints about Victorian government bodies and agencies. It is a free, fair and completely independent office. Last year, we received nearly 40,000 contacts from the public, not of all of which were in our jurisdiction, and completed 3,021 formal enquiries and investigations. And while big set-piece investigations – “Ombudsman slams …” – gain the most public attention, it is matters like the case above, often resolved informally, that make up much of the day-to-day work of the office.

My office is willing, present and able to take complaints, but we also have a wider goal of promoting better public administration in Victoria. To work towards a fairer Victoria. One where single parents don’t have to call our office in a panic because a government agency has made a mistake.

What could the agency have done better? Obviously, it shouldn’t have deducted the payment in the first place. But having made that mistake, it should have fixed it promptly when she made a complaint.  

It should have ensured that its own internal culture embraced complaints as a core part of the business. Every complaint should be treated with the respect it deserves, and the prevailing attitude should be to resolve the complaint as quickly as possible. That advice comes from the Victorian Ombudsman’s Complaints: Good Practice Guide for Public Sector Agencies and was clearly not followed in this case.

An organisation – and this is by no means limited to the public sector – should first ensure it enables its clients to make complaints. The starting point is changing any negative view of complaints as pesky time-wasting affairs into a positive outlook: complaints are free feedback from the public.

Of course, merely taking complaints isn’t enough. You need to respond to the complainant as well. Key to an effective response system is acknowledging the complaint quickly. This cannot be overstated – indeed, the third most common complaint to my  office in 2015/16 came from people unhappy about the delay at an agency or department in complaint handling.

Treating everyone involved in the matter in a way that is objective, respectful and fair is key. A good response will provide clear reasons for decisions made and where possible, find a solution. Be prepared to admit a mistake was made and correct it. In many cases, that’s all the person making the complaint wants to hear.

There are always unreasonable complainants, it is a simple fact of life. Dealing with people who are angry and frustrated can be challenging for complaint handlers. But the rare few who can be difficult are not reason enough to see all complaints as negative.

My office runs a series of workshops on good complaint handling for public sector agencies and local government staff. And our Good Practice Guide for Public Sector Agencies is available to download here.

Any agency, business or organisation that deals with the public – and it is very difficult to think of any that do not – is going to have to deal with complaints. Learning to love complaints may not sound easy, but it can be done. And the organisation that learns from its mistakes, is that which will perform best.