Friday, 11 March 2011

Barnet we have a problem!

In today’s batch of delegated powers reports is the creation of a new post – Corporate Complaints Officer (£33,510 – £36,306)

The report states that:
The creation of this post seeks to mitigate the following issues with the corporate
complaints process in the Council:

• Lack of a corporate owner through the decentralised structure
• Lack of corporate understanding of complaints
• Inconsistency in reporting and practice
• Lost opportunities for service improvements

Although it is laudable that the council are at last addressing these serious shortcomings I can’t help but feel they are coming at the this problem from the wrong direction. In the Purpose of the Job section of the job description, 6 of the 8 bullet points refer to how the complaints process can be monitored, recorded or managed in a better manner. Only two points relate to how the person can contribute to service improvements. In a commercial business I doubt they would beef up the customer complaints department in this way – they would put much greater emphasis on tackling the areas that are giving rise to complaints. The best solution would be an organisation that has no need for a complaints officer. Given that the council are in the process of making 800 people redundant and cutting services perhaps they feel they are likely to get a lot more complaints and are responding accordingly. All very worrying!


  1. Complaints are important, so I disagree that there may be organisations who do not need them. They are a valuable source of feedback. Jo Webber, Deputy Policy Director of the NHS Confederation believes that some of the best hospitals have the highest numbers of complaints because they actively seek them out and learn from them.

    However, for them to be really valuable you need to have people at the very top of the organisation taking responsibility and challenging the directors and department heads. This role clearly cannot fulfil that function, so it would probably be better for the Directorates to keep ownership of complaints, with someone senior, in a strategic role, overseeing this.

    It is unfortunate that the council has only got as far as "lost opportunites for service improvements" and not taken the next step to "getting it right first time".

    My experience of reviewing complaints dealt with by councils is that there is often a huge amount of issue drift, so that a complaint about an issue, becomes a complaint about the delay in dealing with the issue. Officers become demoralised and spend hours of time responding, with nearly as much management time overseeing the process, and all the time the focus is on defending actions rather than solving problems. I have seen complaints files from some councils which are literally 1 metre thick on just one complainant. No-one seems to cost this time sensibly.

  2. Jaybird, I understand where you are coming from but for me a complaint is a problem that hasn't been resolved. Often large organisations do not train or empower staff to deal problems when they arise and when there is still the opportunity for a positive outcome. As you quite rightly identify there is often a large amount of 'drift' in complaints but I think that merely supports my argument. Problems that are quickly identified at the time they occur and are dealt with properly never turn into complaints. Feedback sessions where staff discuss the problems they have experienced and then resolved help to highlight ways to stop the problems starting in the first place and also act as a way of encouraging other staff to address problems as they happen. Yes, there will still be a need for a complaint systems where the problem is sufficiently serious and cannot or has not been resolved but they become the exception not the norm and can receive a much greater level of senior management attention.

  3. The problem that needs to be addressed is that within the higher echelons of power, Barnet refuses to recognise that it actually makes mistakes. They are perfect and do nothing wrong. We are just annoying busy-bodies who get in the way. So when the council refers to a “lack of corporate understanding of complaints”, for once they are right!

  4. Be grateful that Barnet Council don't think that complaints really are important or they would pay the officer £100k a year.

  5. Mr Reasonable, I think we are in agreement. You are labelling first level complaints as problems, whereas I am including them.

    Mr M, I do think someone on that sort of paygrade should have responsibility for complaints, together with oversight from a councillor, although I agree it does not merit a new salaried post.

    I work for an organisation called Centre for Justice which helps local authorities, businesses and individuals avoid spending huge sums on complaints and litigation.

  6. Barnet Council have declined to accept my complaint about their dishonesty and negligence, although their Constitution says citizens have the RIGHT to make complaints, and their Code of Conduct says they will thoroughly investigate ALL complaints.

    Barnet's Standards committee have conveniently decided that they don't need to hear my complaint, and Matthew Offord has assured me that he wrote to Barnet about six weeks ago, but hasn't had a reply. I think maybe he forgot to post the letter. What do you think?

    Next stop, Eric Pickles.

  7. Eric Pickles Department have said that it's nothing to do with them and refused to get involved. Where next?