Ombudsman sets standard for local council complaint handling

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Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass has today tabled a report in Parliament about local government complaint handling, along with a good practice guide for local councils.

Prepared in consultation with Victoria’s 79 councils, the good practice guide sets the standard members of the community can expect if they make a complaint to their council.

The report details the findings of a survey of councils, and recommends legislative changes to create consistency in complaint handling across the state.

"For many people, their main contact with government is with their local council," Ms Glass said. "The work of councils is evident in every street of every town and suburb in Victoria.

"It is therefore not surprising that complaints about local councils have been one of the highest categories of complaint to my office for many years.

"Staff in my office identified one of the main causes of complaints against local councils was in fact the way councils dealt with complaints. All too often complaints were seen as a nuisance, or provoked a defensive, bureaucratic or unhelpful response.

"Complaints are one of the most valuable sources of data available to councils. They represent free feedback and, if used effectively, are a catalyst for improving services."

The Ombudsman said the very notion of what constitutes a complaint required clarity.

"I am recommending that the legislation include a definition of a complaint. Different councils use different definitions – or no definition at all – and have varying interpretations and processes.

"A single definition would set a common standard and allow for meaningful data collection and analysis, which councils could act on to improve their services."

The Ombudsman is also recommending that all councils be required to have an internal review function in their dealing with complaints.

This has been adopted elsewhere in Australia where it has increased accountability and reduced the number of substantiated complaints.

"Good complaint handling increases confidence in public administration. While each council is unique, the principles of complaint handling cut across local boundaries,’ Ms Glass said.

Report: Councils and complaints – A report on current practice and issues

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