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The importance of a good complaints system

In the sixth podcast of our corruption prevention series, we speak to Deputy Victorian Ombudsman Megan Philpot who shares advice on how public sector agencies can best manage complaints, and get the most from the valuable information they provide.

In the sixth podcast of our corruption prevention series, we speak to Deputy Victorian Ombudsman Megan Philpot who shares advice on how public sector agencies can best manage complaints, and get the most from the valuable information they provide.

  • Music intro

    INTERVIEWER: Hello and welcome to the latest IBAC corruption prevention podcast. IBAC is Victoria’s anti-corruption agency and it’s our role to expose, investigate and prevent public sector corruption and police misconduct.

    A major source of information to IBAC – and other agencies such as the Victorian Ombudsman are complaints. Whether from an employee or a member of the community, complaints can prompt a service improvement, a change in policy or procedure, or a significant investigation.

    To talk about good complaint management and outcomes, we’re joined today by Deputy Ombudsman, Megan Philpot. Welcome Megan.

    MEGAN PHILPOT: Thank you, Rory. 

    INTERVIEWER: Complaints can carry negative connotations. But really, we should be looking at them in a positive way. What are some of the benefits to having an effective complaints system, particularly for state and local government? 

    MEGAN PHILPOT: Good question. Because we deliver a public service and we live within a democracy, well, one of the rights, if you like, of a member of the public, is the ability to complain. And in my years of being in the Ombudsman world, it still surprises me that there are some areas in the public sector that don’t acknowledge a member of the public’s right to complain and don’t treat it as what I would call core business and therefore don’t deal with them well. So the benefits, certainly, are that one you are delivering an appropriate public service. It can lead an organisation to reflect on its operations and if the complaint is recorded well and the data’s retained, it can contribute to business improvement – no question at all. So, it is a cyclical thing. The circle can be completed – it actually benefits the agency.

    INTERVIEWER: The Victorian Ombudsman has conducted many investigations into complaint handling processes within specific sectors and organisations. What are some common failures that you see?

    MEGAN PHILPOT: Some of the weaknesses we see are really as I alluded to before there’s a culture within many organisations where they don’t treat complaints and complaint handling as core business so there’s no real systemisation, if you like, within the agency about how to accept complaints, how to respond to complaints and how to record complaints. Principally, what we do see is, there’s not much leadership from the top to influence the culture, if you like. If it doesn’t come from the top, it’s not going to happen.  

    INTERVIEWER: I guess leading on from that then – what are the characteristics of a good complaints system?

    MEGAN PHILPOT: A good complaints system will come from the top, or the culture will be directed by the captain as it were. And there’s got to be a commitment to delivering a really effective public service in handling a member of the public’s complaints. So first of all, in my view, the agency should have a commitment to facilitating their reception of complaints. They should be able to respond to the complaints really well and then, work out ways of learning and improving from those complaints. The office, if you like, or the website or whatever it might be needs to be accessible to all the vast range of members of the community and particularly those in the more vulnerable sector. The method of complaint handling should be transparent to members of the public. They should understand what’s going to happen if they complain, so their expectations need to be managed. There should be objectivity and fairness in responding to the complaint as well as the transparency issue. 

    There’s an accountability measure, of course, as well. I would advocate that agencies should gather their data and actually reflect in their annual reports how many complaints they received about their service, what the kinds of complaints were and indeed what the agency did to resolve the complaint. 

    Also, complaints have to be recorded well in a complaint handling system and usually, of course, that’s online these days – databases. That is a real challenge for organisations to actually get a really bespoke complaints management database. And then, of course, so you’ve got the recording of your data and how you’re going to use that data in order to improve not just your business, but to facilitate improvement within the agencies that are being complained about. 

    INTERVIEWER: All complainants have a right to be heard, understood and respected. However, sometimes you will get a complaint that is not genuine, or is not a complaint at all. Megan, what are some tips for picking up vexatious complaints? 

    MEGAN PHILPOT: Interesting question, Rory. In the legislation that governs the Ombudsman, there is mention of the term ‘vexatious’ but it’s not a term that we use in our office, and I’ll share with you why.

    The reason why is that sometimes people come to our office and are pretty het up about, and they’ve tried to resolve their complaint with an agency, they’ve become frustrated and come across as very angry, and at times disrespectful. We certainly have a code of conduct within our office that we relay to complainants that just as they have a right to be respected so does our staff. So we manage around that. Then with vexatious complaints, I guess, what we mean is a person who keeps returning to complain about the same issue and is never satisfied with the outcome. The tips for picking up vexatious complaints, I guess, is through our data system. Where a call will come in, naturally enough, we will call up the person’s name to see if they’ve been a complainant with us before and we’ll be able to look at the complaints that they’ve raised before. What we need to be very careful about is are they actually raising new issues and that’s a matter of being very discerning and, first of all, really listening to what the complainant is saying because I suggested in the beginning they may be very het up about their issue, they appear to be vexatious but maybe they are raising new issues, and maybe we do need to look at the issue with fresh eyes. 

    The VO has produced a document along with other Ombudsman offices across the country that’s called ‘managing unreasonable complainant conduct’. It’s not about managing the complainant, we’re not psychologists but it’s about managing the conduct around that too, when we do find that it becomes difficult. We need to listen first to really where the complainant is coming from, and then if we can’t resolve it, or we think it’s been resolved to the Ombudsman’s satisfaction we can only direct them to an area that can externally review the office, namely the Inspectorate.

    INTERVIEWER: The Victorian Ombudsman completed more than 3000 formal inquiries and investigations in the last financial year. What are the top complaints that the Victorian Ombudsman receives about the public sector? And what can organisations learn from the complaints you receive?

    MEGAN PHILPOT: Well, certainly the majority of our complaints come from prisoners, and that’s understandable. One, they are restricted obviously in their movements and their conversations with the outside world, and also, the Ombudsman is on the free call list for prisoners to enable them to contact us when they see fit so they’re the highest number of complaints we receive. And the second would be local government, so a combination of the councils across the local government sector in Victoria, and VicRoads is fairly close there as well. The services that people use the most in the latter two cases and understandably prisons in the first. 

    What they can learn about the complaints we receive – well the Ombudsman really does endeavour to resolve complaints that come to us informally, and I’m certainly of the view that is the better way to resolve more simple matters in the first instance so we may call for records and then after considering records and our conversations with the department or agency, we’ll form a view that maybe it could have been done better – maybe the action taken or the decision made could have been better and we will talk about that informally with the agency and very often they will come to the party – they will be able to reflect on what they’ve done and sometimes they even pose the solution in the first instance, which, to me, is the best way of learning. That can also happen with large matters, for example, recently we conducted a couple of investigations with an agency. We were going along in the investigation and then the agency itself proposed quite far reaching resolutions to the complaints, which we accepted and ended the investigation and that was a very positive learning experience for the agency. Of course, we’re able to make formal recommendations in an investigation as well and we do that at times, as you may be aware, and we might table the report to Parliament. We would like to think that agencies learn from that as well. 

    I did raise with you before the idea of raising our data with agencies and I think that is a more modern way to go, perhaps, so that they’re able to reflect themselves on their areas of vulnerability. 

    INTERVIEWER: Megan, is there somewhere where members of the public could get more information about the work that the Victorian Ombudsman does?

    MEGAN PHILPOT: Certainly. Well, we do have a website as you would imagine, and on our website, we’ve actually just made an animation about what it is that we do and how to handle complaints effectively. So there’s quite a plethora of advice sheets and fact sheets there. I should also mention that for agencies, in particular, we have published a best practice guide in complaint handling – also for councils. And, indeed, we’re just about to re-release an updated version of the best practice guide to complaint handling and we’re often requested to conduct complaint handling training by agencies – so that’s one way of us being able to really pass on our experience in complaint handling to the public sector. 

    INTERVIEWER: Thank you.  

    That was Megan Philpot, Victorian Deputy Ombudsman, speaking about effective complaint systems in the public sector. 

    IBAC works closely with other agencies in the Victorian integrity system, including the Victorian Ombudsman.

    If you’d like more information about IBAC, go to www.ibac.vic.gov.au or follow @IbacVic on Twitter.