Victorian Ombudsman equipping councils to better deal with complaints

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The Victorian Ombudsman has released a new guide for councils to help deal with complaints.

The Councils and Complaints – A Good Practice Guide edition 2 provides advice on implementing new legislative requirements relating to complaints, using good practice complaint handling and reminding councils to look through the human rights lens when dealing with complaints.

The guide has been revised to incorporate the new provisions of the Local Government Act 2020 which include, for the first time, a definition of complaint and a requirement for councils to have complaint handling policies.

It also relates to dealing with complaints about Council decisions, staff and contractors but not individual councillors, as that is the jurisdiction of the Local Government Inspectorate.

The new Act follows the Ombudsman’s recommendations from sector-wide enquiries into councils’ complaints practices and procedures, and fulfils a commitment made following the 2019 report to update its good practice guide, first released in 2015.

“Councils are an integral part of Victorians’ lives and it is no surprise my office deals with many thousands of complaints about them every year,” Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass said.

“But we encourage councils to recognise complaints as free feedback, and to ensure they are dealt with properly and fairly.

“Good complaints handling carries its own rewards: more satisfied customers and the opportunity to learn and improve services. The reverse is also true: poor complaints handling, including failing to acknowledge dissatisfaction, can carry significant costs, not only in reduced transparency and accountability but in public confidence.

“Complaints are a valuable source of information about how councils and other government agencies are performing against the public's expectations.”

Ms Glass urged councils to stop using the term “internal Ombudsman” to deal with internal reviews of complaints, saying it only confused people.

“Referring to a council officer as an internal Ombudsman is problematic because they are not, and cannot be, independent of the council,” she said.

Ms Glass said the key to a good complaint handling system was leadership, organisational culture, case management and training and support for staff.

“The guide also acknowledges that some councils have more resources than others, and provides tips to assist them, whatever their situation,” she said.

The Councils and Complaints – A Good Practice Guide offers guidance on developing key performance indicators and recording complaint data and complaint handling processes.

The guide also provides advice about building a positive culture around complaints, practical tools, including templates, real examples and a self-assessment tool for councils.