Cambridge City Council has published a draft of its annual complaints report in advance of a meeting of the council’s standards committee on Wednesday the 15th of June.
I think the report fails to fulfil its role of enabling councillors to check the council’s complaints system is working. The key problem is that the definition of a complaint is not clear. Many of the example complaints cited appear to me to be things I’d expect the council to deal with as routine matters of day to day business, and areas where it is widely known that many people were outraged and inconvenienced by council errors, such as with the administration of council tax exemptions for students, do not get mentioned.
That what counts as a complaint isn’t clear isn’t a great start as it of course means statistics on what have been considered as complaints are rather meaningless. The report is generally all about statistics with very little of the meat which underlies them being revealed. A number of the examples of complaints given lead me to question why the matter was considered a complaint.
The section providing examples of complaints regarding Customer and Democratic Services states:
In Customer Services complaints occurred where they had waited a long time when in fact it had only been 5 minutes, had called in to see someone from housing options and had been given the wrong operating hours and had complained about the amount of cycle spaces at the front of the building.
This just raises unanswered questions such as why was the complaint about waiting five minutes considered valid if it was considered clearly without merit, and what if any, action has the council taken about the lack of cycle parking outside its main customer reception (a “complaint” I agree with, which could be addressed with signage to nearby cycle parking, if provision of more racks close by is not practical).
Some responses which are mentioned appear potentially disproportionate, for example:
The Dec is no longer parked for sessions in residential areas – in response to a resident complaining about noise.
The Dec is the council’s youth activity bus. I wonder if the pros and cons of avoiding residential areas were considered eg. do as many people still use the facility if it’s parked up well out the way of where people live? Couldn’t it just be a bit quieter if it is near people’s homes in the evenings?
Independent Complaints Investigator
A section of the report which I think needs substantial improvement is that which reports on the work of the council’s “Independent Complaints Investigator”, currently, Corinne Hibbert, the report explains:
The Independent Complaints Investigator is not an employee of the Council but is paid by the Council on a contract to investigate complaints. This ensures that the role can be independent of the Council’s departments.
While statistics on the number of complaints investigated are included there is not enough information for councillors to assess the quality of the work the Independent Complaints Investigator.
I would like to see the Independent Investigator’s reports all proactively published published (given these are high level complaints which the council has failed to solve internally). The annual complaints report should contain at least a list of titles and summaries of each complaint (as an appendix perhaps).
I have written about the poor quality of the one report by the independent investigator which I have seen. It contained a number of inaccuracies, and a rather ludicrous and in my view inappropriate allegation of sensationalism against me. The report also showed a level of technological illiteracy (or a lack of common sense when it comes to technological matters).
Additionally there are no statistics provided to councillors on how many of the independent complaints investigators recommendations have been accepted, or implemented by the council. I think this would be a useful measure of how effectively the system was working and how much impact it was having.
Questions I’d like councillors to consider:
- Who reviews the quality of the Independent Complaints Investigator’s work?
- Does the annual complaints report give councillors an assurance that all recommendations made by the complaints investigator have been taken into account, and acted on where appropriate?
The report reports that there have been no findings of maladministration against the council in the year reported on.
I think the covering report (this being the public sector the tax payer has paid for one person to write the report and another to sumarise it in a covering report!) ought to make clear what significant changes there have been since the end of the period covered by the formal report.
I understand there has now been a finding of maladministration; and I think this ought be raised when the report is put in-front of councillors in the presence of the press and public – otherwise a misleading impression may be given.
Freedom Of Information
I also have a brief comment to make on the Freedom of Information statistics.
The council includes requests, responses to which have been delayed due to them requiring clarification, in their statistics for the fraction of requests which took longer than the statutory twenty working days to reply to. What they should do is start the “clock” for the twenty working days once the clarification has been received. Not doing so strikes me as an error.
I think it would be more useful to present a statistic showing the fraction of cases where the council failed to meet the statutory requirement. ie. separating out those delays due to a, permitted delay, for a public interest test, from others.
I also note that if there were requests which the council was taking many months to respond to (perhaps due to drawn out public interest tests) the complaints report would not highlight those.
Also – twenty working days for a response to a FOI request isn’t a “government target” it’s the law!
As with all council meetings there is a public speaking slot on the agenda for the Standards Committee meeting on Wednesday the 15th of June.
The Standards Committee are actually being asked for their comments on the report at its current stage, before it is formally published and taken to the council’s Civic Affairs Committee, so perhaps there is an opportunity for my comments to be taken on board.
There are very similar problems with reporting of recommendations to the council arising from financial auditing; there too councillors and the public don’t get to see all the recommendations, and if the council has acted on them or not (and if not, why not).