Cambridge City Council Complaints Report 2010-11

Sunday, June 12th, 2011. 4:32pm

Cover of Cambridge City Council Annual Complaints Report 2010-11

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!

Public Speaking

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).

3 comments/updates on “Cambridge City Council Complaints Report 2010-11

  1. Richard Taylor Article author

    I have just returned from Cambridge City Council’s Standards Committee where I used the public speaking slot to raise the above points.

    The chair rudely and abruptly dismissed my contribution on two counts.

    1. That it wasn’t a question.
    2. That the committee’s role is mainly in relation to complaints about councillors, so this wasn’t the right place to make my points.

    The chair, who was not a councillor, but independent member of the committee Alan Clark was not only rude, but wrong.

    The public speaking slot on council agendas is for either asking a question or making a statement. Mr Clark needs to read page 154/399 of the council’s constitution where this is made clear, his mistake was relying on the title of the agenda item which was “Public Questions”, however the council often uses obscure titles for agenda items despite regular calls for them to be made clearer and more accurate.

    Mr Clark specifically said that considering the section of the report on the Independent Complaints Investigator was outside the remit of the committee.

    Mr Clark’s dismissal and rejection of my comments was absolute, he did not offer me the usual chance for a public speaker to comment on what has been said in response as presumably as from his point of view nothing substantive/relevant had been said.

    When it came to the turn of the committee to discuss the complaints report almost everything the officer introducing the report said about it related to complaints other than complaints about councillors; and over 90% of the time the committee debated the report was given over to non-councillor complaints. Quite why Mr Clark dismissed my comments on the grounds they were not largely related to councillor complaints but was otherwise happy for the committee to hold a wider discussion wasn’t at all clear to me. After the meeting I asked Mr Clark about this, he simply repeated his point that the statutory role of the committee relates only to councillor complaints, though he conceded that the council had given it other roles. He made no response on the matter of public statements being entirely permissible, I hope he will go and research the matter before he next chairs a meeting.

    On the substance of my comments, the council’s Head of Legal was the only one to reply, confirming I was right about the status of the council’s duty to reply to FOI requests within 20 working days, it is the law, and not just “government guidance”.

    A council officer, called “Christopher” introduced the annual complaints report when it was reached on the agenda. He essentially read out his written report and the chair failed to stop him from doing so. One thing he drew attention to was that increased use of email was reducing the number of complaints. He said that email made it easier to distinguish between complaints and other communications, he didn’t explain the basis for this view any further and no members of the committee questioned him on it.

    The committee were told that in the future complaints from across the council will be recorded in a Corporate Customer Management system, rather than as now in a variety of different ways, including pen and paper based systems, around the council. Another point highlighed was that the council now has an online complaints form, which is getting used. When the introduction got on to the Freedom of Information section the meeting’s chair questioned why FOI was being dealt with in a complaints report.

    When councillors debated the report, Cllr Stuart took up my point about what constitutes a complaint not being well defined, and matters which are effectively day-to-day business or obviously trivial matters being included. The council officer, who presented the report responded to say that determining what was, and was not, a complaint is not an exact science and if a resident said they were raising a complaint then it was treated as a complaint. This means there is no sanity checking. If I complain every day of the year that the council doesn’t provide free bananas then that’ll be 365 complaints logged on the complaints report. The committee requested a clearer definition / explanation of what is considered a complaint to be included.

    Cllr Taylor also spoke about the definition of a complaint, she asked for a distinction to be drawn between “events” and complaints, with complaints about the council’s policy or which were calling for a change in the way the council did something to be flagged up. eg. Someone phoning up the council and complaining about a noisy party is making a complaint to the council, but not a complaint of the sort councillors on this committee are really interested in monitoring – it’s not a complaint about the way the council is run.

    Councillors spotted that complaints not made by phone, email, face to face, or the online form were up substantially, and accounted for 15% of complaints, councillors wondered what other routes there were. They were told that about 10% of the council’s complaints now come in via comment cards which are available in the council’s reception areas. It’s a sign of the lack of initiative taken by council officers that they let the “other” category of the report expand without considering for themselves adding a new row in the table to show the newly emerging route for making complaints.

    Cllr Dryden asked about complaints about contractors, noting that the council is about to outsource more of its responsibilities to contractors (Council housing maintenance is being outsourced). Cllr Dryden said he had personally raised complaints (including passing on complaints from constituents) about contractors and he couldn’t see where these would be included in the statistics. He’s right – there’s no clear place where complaints about say the swimming at Parkside pools would go either – the council appear to treat such things as not being complaints about their own service.

    A committee member asked how complaints which come in by phone are recorded. The committee was told that all calls to the council’s contact centre are recorded as a matter of course. (This surprised me).

    While speaking the officer presenting the report revealed the council has more than one complaints officer (that explains another couple of those 1,200 jobs).

    Councillors then turned to the section on Freedom of Information.

    Cllr Taylor noted requests were “snowballing” and asked how much they cost to deal with (the officer didn’t know but said there was at least one person, full time, dealing with them). Cllr Taylor asked if the council could do more proactive publication, specifically she proposed publishing answers to “Frequently Asked Questions” on the council’s website.

    Councillors were told that the council has an internal “knowledge management system” which provides answers to frequently asked questions and that it was working on exposing this to the public via the website.

    The chair, amusingly, noted that nothing had been said during the debate on the report about councillor complaints, and urged members of the committee to say something. Cllr Taylor commented that most of the complaints were related to planning meetings (area committees, or the central planning committee) and appeared to reveal a lack of understanding by the public making the complaints about the role of councillors and particularly when councillors had to declare interests (in most cases the councillors were cleared of any wrong doing). Cllr Taylor said the information available on the council’s planning webpages didn’t really cover what happened in the planning meetings at all and suggested an improvement. Cllr Stuart, the chair of the planning committee, said she agreed and would work with the council’s head of planning to improve the situation.

  2. cllr ian manning

    Richard, did you/have you asked at all about what framework, if any, the council run their system under? There must be th equivalent of something like ITIL ( used extensively in IT) TO DEAL with complaints.

  3. Richard Taylor Article author

    Cllr Manning,

    There doesn’t appear to be any framework; the impression I got was that there was nothing consistent across the council.

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