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Waverley Borough Council Committee System - Committee Document

Meeting of the Executive held on 05/12/2006
Review of Waverley's Complaints Procedure

Waverley Borough Council



[Wards Affected: All]

Summary and purpose:

The purpose of this report is to review the information gathered to date as part of the Committee’s review of Waverley’s corporate complaints procedure. In particular the report sets out the existing procedures for answering customers’ complaints including the strategies and standards that are in place across the Council, compares Waverley’s procedures with those in other Surrey districts and boroughs, examines the level of customer satisfaction with the way in which their complaint was dealt with and looks at the procedures for monitoring and reporting complaints.

The report also refers briefly to the procedures within Waverley for the investigation of complaints made to the Local Government Ombudsman about Waverley’s services. Members will recall that these were discussed in some detail at the Committee’s last meeting. Against this background, the report makes recommendations to the Executive on this subject.

Environmental implications:

There are no direct environmental implications associated with this report.

Social / community implications:

The level of customer satisfaction with the way in which their complaints have been handled by Waverley will have a bearing on the public’s perception of the Council and will help the Council to make decisions on its priorities in meeting customers’ needs..

E Government implications

The report includes an evaluation of the complaints tracking system used in Waverley, and examines procedures for handling e mailed complaints.

Resource and legal implications:

There are no direct resource and legal implications associated with this report with the possible exception of a need to increase the time spent by officers in monitoring and evaluating Waverley’s handling of complaints.

Review of Waverley’s Complaints Procedure in 2003

1. The Council’s formal complaints procedure was introduced in 1993. In the autumn of 2003, the procedure was subject to an internal review, and a revised procedure was introduced in January 2004, supported by a written policy and procedures and a new complaints leaflet.
2. The new procedure was based on the procedure that was already in place in the Housing Department and took into account not only the good practice identified in other local authorities but also advice from the office of the Local Government Ombudsman which recommended that a good complaints system should have the following essential qualities:

Well publicised
Easy to use, helpful and receptive – not adversarial
Fair and objective
Based on clear procedures and defined responsibilities
Quick, thorough and rigorous
Decisive and capable of putting things right where necessary
Comprehensive, with principles and key features which relate to all departments of the Council
Sensitive to special needs and circumstances of the complainant
Adequately resourced
Fully supported by councillors and leading officers: and
Regularly analysed to spot patterns of complaint and lessons for service improvement.

Waverley’s policies and procedures for dealing with complaints

3. Waverley’s formal complaints procedure is supported by two documents setting out the Council’s policies and procedures for dealing with complaints. Copies of these documents are attached as Annexe 1.

4. The policy document sets out the Council’s standards for dealing with complaints, provides a definition of what constitutes a complaint, describes the various stages of the Council’s complaints procedure, identifies possible outcomes and contains a brief section about remedies. It also sets out the role of the Service Complaints officers and the Corporate Complaints officer.

5. The procedure document gives detailed guidance on the steps that should be followed by officers in handling complaints and includes a flow chart setting out the action to be taken at each stage. In accordance with these procedures, all complaints are acknowledged in writing by the appropriate administrative officer within 3 working days of the complaint being received. This acknowledgement gives the name of the officer to whom the complaint has been passed, the contact details of that officer and the date by when the complainant can expect to receive a full reply (which will be within 15 working days of receipt of their letter). The procedure document also states that in the event that it is not possible to complete all the necessary investigations in time for a full reply to be sent to the complainant within the required timescale, the complainant should be sent an interim reply explaining the reason for the delay.

6. It had originally been intended that the policy and procedure documents would be printed and circulated in hard copy to all those officers dealing with complaints. However, in the event it was decided that a more cost effective and efficient way of disseminating the information would be for the two documents to be attached electronically to the Lotus Notes complaints database, which was the system used at the time for the tracking of complaints. When the new system was introduced, briefings were also given to those staff involved directly with complaints handling. Now that the Lotus Notes complaints database is no longer used, it is suggested that both documents should be made available on the Council’s intranet for officers and Members and also on the Council’s website so that this information is accessible to complainants.

7. The current complaints leaflet (copy attached as Annexe 2) gives brief details of the various stages including contact details for the Local Government Ombudsman’s office and also gives advice on how to make a complaint about an elected Councillor. When completing the form, the complainant is asked to state whether they have previously contacted the Council about the matter, and what they believe the Council should do to put things right. There is also an equal opportunities monitoring form and information provided in six languages ie French, Farsi, Serbian, Spanish, Arabic and Turkish which states that the form can be made available in these languages on request. The complaints form will need to be amended once the Council’s restructuring exercise has been completed.

How aware are members of the public of Waverley’s complaints procedure and how easy is it for them to access the procedure?

8. Since early 2004, the complaints procedure has been widely publicised through the Council’s magazine The Link, and on the Council’s website. There are also complaints leaflets on display in the reception of the Council’s main offices in Godalming, at the three Locality Offices and in the Planning Reception area.

9. The complaints leaflet can be downloaded from the Council’s website and there is a direct link to the form at the bottom of the homepage. In addition the complaints form can be accessed via the A to Z of local services. It continues to be the case that the majority of complainants prefer to put their complaint in a letter or e mail rather than using the Freepost form attached to the complaints leaflet.

10. Complaints can be e mailed to the Council using a dedicated e-mail address i.e. complaints@waverley.gov.uk. The use of this e-mail address has increased over the past year with 48 email complaints having been received since 1st June 2006. Complaints received by email are logged in accordance with the Council’s complaints procedure and are treated in the same way as those received by post, in terms of the timescale for sending an acknowledgement and a full response.

How does Waverley’s complaints procedure compare with the procedures adopted by other authorities in Surrey, and what can be gained from their initiatives and good practice?

11. Attached as Annexe 3 is a table showing the main features of the complaints procedures followed by each district and borough council in Surrey.

(a) Structure

12. As will be seen from this table, eight authorities including Waverley have a three-stage procedure, two authorities have a four stage procedure and one authority has a two stage process for dealing with complaints. In nine authorities, including Waverley, the final stage of the procedure involves a review of the complaint by the Chief Executive or Head of Paid Service. There is therefore very little difference between authorities in the structure of their respective complaints procedures.

(b) Timescales for dealing with complaints

13. The situation with regard to timescales is somewhat different in that Waverley’s stated timescale for sending a detailed response to a complainant (ie 21 calendar days or 15 working days) is somewhat longer than those adopted by other authorities in Surrey with the exception of Epsom and Ewell which gives no indication of timescales to be followed. In the case of the other nine authorities, complainants are told that they should expect to receive a detailed response to their complaint within 10 working days or less, with small variations according to the stage of the complaint.

14. The issue of performance against targets is addressed later in this report, together with the question of whether Waverley should adopt more challenging targets for responding to complaints.

(c) Publications on complaints

15. All Surrey districts and boroughs publicise their complaints procedures on their website and all publish complaints leaflets that include a form to be completed by the complainant. The type of information that is provided in each leaflet varies considerably from the most basic of details about the procedure as is the case with Runnymede, to a much more comprehensive approach whereby the complaints procedure is included in a guide to the authority’s policy on customer care which is the approach taken by Guildford. The document produced by Guildford gives very detailed information on a range of issues, notably the different ways of contacting the Council, how to leave a message, the provision of interpreters, disabled access to the offices, the circumstances in which the complaints procedure will not apply, information on ‘vexatious’ complaints, information on the Local Government Ombudsman Service, a statement on privacy including freedom of information issues, and information on the Human Rights Act.

16. Given that Waverley’s complaints leaflet will need to be updated following the restructuring exercise, Members may wish to consider whether Waverley should follow the example of Guildford in producing a more comprehensive document on complaints and related issues.

Current procedures for monitoring and reporting on complaints received by Waverley

17. To date, Waverley has carried out very little monitoring and reporting on complaints received from members of the public due primarily to the limitations of the Lotus Notes complaints database that was used to track complaints up until the end of March 2006. Information on complaints received directly by Waverley has been provided to Members as part of the annual report on Ombudsman complaints and has been limited to the number of complaints received by Department and the average time taken to respond to those complaints. The purchase of a new IT system for tracking complaints provided by Datix went ‘live’ on 1 April 2006 and in future years will enable officers to provide a more in depth analysis of the causes and outcome of complaints.

How can Waverley measure levels of customer satisfaction and thereby improve its service delivery

18. When looking at levels of customer satisfaction with complaint handling in Waverley, it is necessary to look not only at the time taken to produce a full response to the complaint, but also the extent to which complainants are satisfied with the way in which their complaint has been handled and the outcome.

(a) Timescales

19. Turning first to timescales, in the first two quarters of the current year, Waverley’s performance in responding to complaints from members of the public was as follows:

Total Replied to within % Replied
Received 15 working days within 15
working days
06/07 Q1
Managing Director's Department
Environment and Leisure Department
Finance Department
Housing Department
Planning and Development Department
06/07 Q2
Managing Director's Department
Environment and Leisure Department
Finance Department
Housing Department
Planning and Development Department

20. The large number of complaints received by the Environment and Leisure Department, particularly in the second quarter, is almost certainly due to the introduction of the new arrangements for the collection of domestic refuse.

21. It is clear from the information set out above that Waverley is out of step with other authorities in Surrey in terms of its target for responding to complaints. Members are asked to consider therefore whether there is now a need for Waverley to adopt a more stretching target of 10 working days in line with the majority of other districts and boroughs in Surrey, bearing in mind that this will almost certainly require more resources in terms of the amount of staff time allocated to complaints handling. In this regard it should be borne in mind that the current proposal to procure an Electronic Documents and Records Management System (EDRMS) for Waverley would lead to the implementation of a corporate standard for the filing documents and records which in turn would enable cross-cutting searches for information to be undertaken across the Council much more efficiently and speedily than at present, thereby reducing the time taken to investigate complaints.

(b) Customer satisfaction with complaints handling and outcomes

22. Customer satisfaction with complaints handling was measured as part of a survey of Waverley’s residents carried out earlier this year. 14% of those surveyed confirmed that they had contacted the Council with a complaint over the past twelve months. As might be expected, the results of this survey indicated that there was a close correlation between complainants’ satisfaction with the way in which their complaint was handled and the extent to which they were satisfied with the outcome of their complaint. This is illustrated by the following table:

Way in which
Complaint handled
Outcome of

23. To date there has been no regular monitoring of satisfaction with complaints handling Council wide, although prior to the introduction of the new Datix software to track complaints in April this year, officers in the Housing Department carried out quarterly monitoring of satisfaction with complaints handling amongst their own customers. Once a full response had been sent to a complainant, the Housing Policy and Performance Manager would then send a further letter and a prepaid envelope to the complainant asking for their views on different aspects of the way in which their complaint was handled. A copy of this letter is attached as Annexe 4.

24. While response rates were relatively low, with well under 50% of complainants returning the form to the Housing Department, the exercise nevertheless provided officers in the Housing Department with some useful information about the views of their customers, as can be seen from the monitoring report for the first quarter of 2005/06 attached as Annexe 5.

25. It would certainly be possible to introduce regular monitoring of complainants’ satisfaction levels Council wide, using a standard letter generated by the Datix system, and Members may wish to consider whether this should be the subject of a pilot exercise in the final quarter of 2006/07. Such an exercise would enable Members to assess the quality of information provided by complainants, and the extent to which additional resources would be required for the analysis of the responses if this were to become an established procedure.

26. Another way of assessing whether the Council’s complaints system is working effectively would be to regularly monitor a sample of complaints from every department by addressing the following questions (taken from the Ombudsman’s booklet on Running a Complaints System):

Was the complaint clearly defined?
Did the Council’s responses answer the complaint?
Was enough information collected to enable a fair conclusion to be drawn?
At the end of each stage, was the complainant told what to do if not satisfied?
Were the time targets met?
If something went wrong, was action taken to try to put things right?
Were there any wider lessons and, if there were, what action was taken?

27. Such an exercise could be undertaken using the information captured by the Datix system and would provide a comprehensive picture of complaints handling in Waverley. It is difficult to assess the additional resources that would be needed to undertake this degree of monitoring, but Members may consider that this should also be the subject of a pilot exercise that could be carried out at the end of the current year by selecting say 1 out of every 4 complaints received during the year by all departments, which it is thought would result in a sample size of approximately 100.

Waverley’s handling of Ombudsman complaints

28. At an earlier meeting, the Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee received a detailed report on Waverley’s handling of Ombudsman complaints which addressed the issues raised in the Ombudsman’s annual letter to the Council. While Members noted that the level of detail in the Council’s responses to the Ombudsman was always such that a very full explanation was given, they were concerned that the average length of time taken to respond to the Ombudsman’s initial enquiries in 2005/06 was 73.3 days against the Ombudsman’s target of 28 days. Members therefore requested that information be sought from other local authorities about the speed and level of detail supplied in their responses to the Ombudsman.

29. Officers have since consulted Woking and Epsom and Ewell about how they manage to respond to the Ombudsman’s initial enquiries so quickly ie within an average time of 14.3 days and 9.7 days respectively. Each of these authorities has confirmed that they have been able to achieve such a good performance simply by requiring the department concerned to provide a draft response to the Ombudsman Link Officer within 7 and 10 working days respectively. In the case of Epsom and Ewell the departments concerned were evidently able to respond even more quickly than within the given deadline, although the fact that Epsom and Ewell is a very small authority (with an population of 52,000) may have some bearing on their excellent performance.

30. In the current year, Waverley has significantly improved the time it takes to respond to the Ombudsman in that the average time taken to respond to the seven initial enquiries received since April 2006 is 40.7 days. This has been achieved partly due to the fact that some of the complaints have been reasonably straightforward, and partly due to a corporate decision to give this area of work priority over all other complaints. There is still room for further improvement and there still needs to be a greater input by individual departments in the preparation of responses to the Ombudsman. Members will no doubt wish to explore this matter further with the Assistant Ombudsman, Mr Shaw, and to ask for his views on the key features of a good response to an initial enquiry.

31. At that meeting, the Committee also agreed that as part of its review of the Council’s complaints procedure, consideration should be given to what else could be done to avoid matters reaching the Ombudsman. There is no easy answer to this question, and there are many issues that might be addressed under this heading. However, it is clear that many complaints to the Ombudsman arise from a complainant’s dissatisfaction with the way in which the Council has handled their original complaint – notably a delay and/or or failure to answer correspondence and poor communication. If, therefore, Waverley can achieve an improvement in these areas through increased monitoring of complaints, it is possible that there may be a reduction in the number of complainants seeking a further review of their complaint by the Ombudsman.

Resource implications for Waverley arising from proposals in the Local Government White Paper published on 26 October 2006

32. While not requiring immediate action, Members will wish to bear in mind that proposals in the White Paper will, if implemented, impact significantly on the Council’s capacity to deal promptly and effectively with a potential increase in volumes of complaints. These include:

A simplification of the process for making a complaint as a result of e mails and telephone calls being treated as written complaints; Increased powers for the Ombudsman to investigate where flaws are exposed in working, even where complaints are not upheld; The extension of the Ombudsman role to the work of Local Strategic Partnerships and wider partnership working.

The views of Members and staff on the Council’s corporate complaints procedure

33. The scoping report presented to Members of the Committee at the beginning of its In-depth review in January this year, proposed that as part of the review the Committee should seek the views of Members and relevant staff on the effectiveness of the Council’s formal complaints procedure. These surveys have yet to be undertaken and Members will wish to consider whether there is still a need for this information to be collected.


34. The Committee reached the following conclusions which are now passed to the Executive for consideration:-

The Committee agreed that this would be beneficial.

The Committee agreed that this would be beneficial.

The Committee agreed that this was no longer necessary.


It is recommended that the conclusions set out in paragraph 34 above be passed to the Executive for consideration.

Background Papers (MD)

There are no background papers (as defined by Section 100D(5) of the Local Government Act 1972) relating to this report.


Name: Mrs Sue Petzold Telephone: 01483 523202.

E-mail: spetzold@waverley.gov.uk