COMPLAINTS HANDLING PROCEDURE
The resources in this toolkit are designed to support best practice in complaint handling as outlined by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO).
It provides policies, case studies, procedural checklists and other useful templates that you should use to deal with complaints.
A complaint isn’t simply a customer’s expression of dissatisfaction alone. Our definition of a complaint is:
The complaint definition can be widely interpreted. If in doubt, the matter should be recorded as a complaint. All delays, non-provision of services or finance, policy issues etc. should be included.
There is no distinction between a ‘complaint’ and a ‘formal complaint’. All should be recorded and strictly dealt with in accordance with the Complaints Handling Procedure, except those specifically excluded under the Exclusions section below.
The Complaints Handling Procedure does not cover:-
Requests for a Service
If a customer is reporting a fault/issue, e.g. faulty street light, pothole etc. the council should be given the opportunity to address the matter in the first instance. However, if a fault/issue is not dealt with within an appropriate timescale then an unfilled request for service becomes a complaint.
An internal matter should not be dealt with under the Complaints Handling Procedure unless the complaint is received from an Aberdeen City Council employee as a service user.
Complaints involving issues that happened more than 6 months ago
The Complaints Handling Procedure has a set time limit of 6 months from when the customer first knew of the problem. In special circumstances we can use our discretion when considering complaints beyond this time limit.
A Request under Freedom of Information or Data Protection legislation
Please use the following link for more information on the Freedom of Information and Data Protection request processes.
A claim for compensation from the council such as personal injury or damage to property
A customer may seek compensation from us if they consider the council liable for personal injury, loss or damage to their property, vehicle etc.If the enquiry is purely regarding a claim then it is not treated as a complaint. However, if for example a customer expresses dissatisfaction about the council workers damaging their property which led to their compensation claim then this aspect is dealt with under the Complaints Handling Procedure.
Disagreement where a right of review / appeal exists
The customer should be directed to the relevant review or appeal procedure in relation to the following:-
- Parking Control Notices
- Blue Badges
- Housing allocation
- license decisions
- school exclusions
- school placing requests
- school exam results
- planning permission decisions
- housing or council tax benefit decisions
Dissatisfaction with a decision may simply require an explanation and signposting to the appropriate appeal route. However, if a customer expresses dissatisfaction with the administrative process followed to arrive at a decision, that element may be considered within the complaints handling procedure.
An issue which is being or has been considered by a court or tribunal
It may be necessary to ask the customer to clarify whether the complaint is or has been heard in court, e.g. if there is any mention of solicitor involvement. If there is court involvement, the complaint cannot be dealt with due to the court decision / pending decision.
An attempt to reopen or reconsider a complaint where the council’s procedure has been completed and a final decision given
Once a complaint has been investigated at stage 2 and a decision made, the internal complaints handling process has been exhausted and the complainant’s next option is to contact the SPSO to request an external review of their complaint. Once a decision has been made by the SPSO, it is not possible to progress the complaint any further and a new complaint cannot be accepted regarding the same issue.
Complaints about Social Work
Most social work complaints are currently dealt with under a separate statutory procedure. In all cases of complaints about social work, please refer to the Social Work Comments or Complaints section of the website.
A Recruitment Decision.
If an unsuccessful applicant is aggrieved about not being shortlisted or appointed then there is a specific procedure for dealing with such complaints. The candidate should email email@example.com or call 01224 523939 who will then provide details of the process.
Complaints about Councillors
We cannot normally investigate complaints against elected members of the Council. Members of the public wishing to complain about a councillor should be directed to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland.
Complaints about External Members
An external Member is a person on a committee who is not a councillor, e.g. a church, parent or teacher representative at Education Committee. In these circumstances the complaint must be made in writing to the Head of Legal and Democratic Services. This may be by letter or by email to the following address:-
Head of Legal and Democratic Services
or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The complaint must clearly state what section of the Councillors’ Code of Conduct the complainant believes has been breached, and when the alleged breach occurred. In no circumstances will an anonymous complaint be considered in terms of this procedure.
A customer can make their complaint in a variety of ways; by letter, email, by phone, in person or using the online complaints form. A customer should never been advised that a complaint can only be accepted in writing. Any staff member could potentially be the first point of contact for a customer’s complaint. You should be prepared to try and resolve a complaint relevant to your area of service on the spot.
Third Party Complaints
Anyone can make a complaint to us, including the representative of someone who is dissatisfied with our service (a representative must provide within their communication the full name and address of the person they represent, to enable a Consent to Disclosure of Personal Data Form to be issued for completion and return).
Sometimes unhappy customers will want to complain to you but not wish to give their name and address or become involved in the complaints procedure. This can make it difficult for you to handle their complaint. It also prevents you from working with the customer to sort things out.
You should always encourage and reassure customers that by giving their details it helps you to help them better. Let them know it would help you check the details so you can try and solve their problem. You would also be able to keep them informed of any changes that will be made as a result of their concerns.
If a customer insists that they wish to remain anonymous then you should still record the details of their complaint, but without their name and address or information that could identify them. This will ensure that they aren’t associated with the complaint or contacted about it in the future but it will also enable you to look into their problem and take action to put it right and improve services for the future.
The Complaints Handling Procedure (CHP) has three stages:
Stage 1 – Frontline Resolution
Stage 2 – Formal Investigation
Stage 3 – Independent External Review
Stages 1 and 2 together comprise the Council’s complaints procedure. Stage 3 is managed by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) who will carry out an investigation of how we have handled the complaint.
Stage 1 of the Complaints Handling Procedure is called Frontline Resolution and focuses on quick responses to straight forward issues which can be resolved at first point of contact or within 5 working days.
A crucial part of the work at Frontline Resolution stage is to know when a complaint is being made. This isn’t always clear and you need to be able to separate complaints from service requests and other expressions of dissatisfaction from customers which are not dealt with through the complaints handling procedure. It is also important to recognise when a service request becomes a complaint.
More information on what is and isn’t a complaint can be found on the How to identify what is and isn’t a complaint page.
Examples of Frontline Resolution Complaints
Frontline Resolution complaints are straightforward and require little or no investigation. Some examples are:
A service that should have been provided has not been provided
A service has not been provided to an appropriate standard
A request for service has not been answered or actioned
A staff member was rude or unhelpful
A staff member did not attend an appointment or call-out
Who can deal with Stage 1 Frontline complaints?
Stage 1 Frontline Resolution complaints can be addressed by any member of staff or alternatively be referred to the appropriate person. They should be resolved quickly with an apology, explanation and/or any other action, within 5 working days or much sooner if possible.
How to deal with a Stage 1 Frontline complaint
For data protection reasons, you will need to give customers privacy notice information when they are making a complaint. This should be done at the start of the process. You should advise all customers that we won’t use their personal data for any other purpose than to process and correspond with them about the complaint and if applicable, that you will be passing their data on to another service to respond to their complaint.
We will keep the complaint file for the current year, plus 5 years from the date that the complaint is closed. If their complaint relates to Social Work then we may keep their information longer as it is held for the lifetime of their case file. More information on how we will use their data can be found at www.aberdeencity.gov.uk/your-data/privacy-notices/your-data-complaints
When a complaint is made it must be handled in accordance with the Complaints Handling Procedure as set out by the Scottish Public Ombudsman (SPSO).This guide sets out the key points of the second stage of the Complaints Handling Procedure and provides various tools to assist you in conducting a formal investigation of the complaint.
What is a Stage 2 Investigation Stage Complaint?
Not all complaints are suitable for Stage 1 Frontline resolution and not all complaints will be resolved at that stage. Stage 2 Investigation complaints may already have been considered at the frontline resolution stage, or they may have been identified as Stage 2 from the start. These types of complaints are typically complex or require a detailed examination before we can state our position. Some examples of Stage 2 complaints are:
An issue that has not been resolved at Stage 1 Frontline Resolution
A complex issue involving a number of services or occurring over a prolonged period of time
A serious or high risk issue, e.g. where a person’s health and safety has been at risk
More information on what is and isn’t a complaint can be found on the How to identify what is and isn’t a complaint page.
The Six Stage Complaint Investigation Process
The 6 steps to the Stage 2 Investigation Stage Complaint process are below. Please click on each link for more details.
Complaints are a valuable source of information about our services, which can help us to identify recurring or underlying problems and potential improvements. Lessons can be learnt from identifying common and recurring causes of complaints but another important approach is to identify lessons that can be learnt from individual complaints.
After the closure of a complaint, officers who respond to complaints should identify learning points so that they can be recorded at this stage in the process. This is particularly important where complaints are upheld, but even a complaint which is not upheld could still highlight the need for us to improve communications or the way in which we manage the customer’s expectations.
What is a Lesson Learnt?
A ‘lesson learnt’ is any action to resolve an issue and to prevent future reoccurrence and that can be evidenced. Examples include:-
An amendment to an existing procedure.
Updating information on a web page to ensure that the information is accurate and consistent.
Increasing the level of content on a letter to ensure full and complete information is provided to the service user.
Briefing of employees on a more frequent basis to ensure that their knowledge is up to date.
When responding to any complaint, you should ask yourself – Could it happen again? If so, how do I stop it?
Ensuring Action is Taken
Collecting and analysing information about complaints is only valuable if it leads to action being taken. The council is required to report on the changes or improvements made to our services as a result of complaints received. Therefore, responding officers or service managers are required to notify the Complaints and Customer Feedback Officer of the actions that they have taken to address each learning point.
Where we have identified the need for service improvement:
the action needed to improve services must be authorised
an officer (or team) should be designated the ‘owner’ of the issue, with responsibility for ensuring the action is taken
a target date must be set for the action to be taken
the designated individual must follow up to ensure that the action is taken within the agreed timescale
where appropriate performance in the service area should be monitored to ensure that the issue has been resolved
To ensure the council learns from the feedback it receives from our customers, a monthly report is produced which identifies for each complaint what lessons have been learned and what action has been taken. This report is circulated to Heads of Service. Lessons learnt from complaints should be recorded and fed back into a service improvement plan. Senior management will review the information gathered from complaints regularly and consider whether our services could be improved or internal policies and procedures updated.
If we have fully investigated the complaint at Stage 2 and the customer is still dissatisfied with our response or the way we have dealt with the complaint, they can ask the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) to consider it further.
Customers must always complete Aberdeen City Council’s corporate complaints process before being referred to the SPSO. On completion of stage 2 of the procedure, the customer must be issued with a letter signed by the appropriate director which states that they have exhausted the procedure.
SPSO Contact Details
The contact details for the SPSO are detailed on the Stage 2 decision letter as follows:-
Postal Address: SPSO, Freepost EH641, Edinburgh, EH3 0BR
Freephone: 0800 377 7330
Online contact: www.spso.org.uk/contact-us
Mobile site: http://m.spso.org.uk
Alternatively, you can issue the customer with the Aberdeen City Council Complaints Handling Procedure leaflet for customers which includes details of how to contact the SPSO.
If the complainant makes contact regarding the same matter once the Stage 2 Investigation Stage Decision Letter from the Director has been issued then an Explanation of the Complaints Handling Procedure Letter is sent to the customer by the Customer Feedback Team via Firmstep.
If a complainant contacts the SPSO regarding a complaint they will consider the matter and make a decision whether to carry out an investigation into how Aberdeen City Council has dealt with the complaint. If the SPSO decide to investigate then we must forward all documentation in relation to the complaint to the SPSO. The SPSO may also ask for further information regarding the matter.
Once the SPSO have carried out their investigation they will make a decision to either uphold or not uphold each point of complaint. The SPSO may also make recommendations, e.g. for the council to make improvements to a procedure or to issue an apology to the complainant. The SPSO will set a deadline for the recommendations to be implemented and the council must evidence that the actions are complete.
The council believes that our customers and service users have a right to be heard, understood and respected. Occasionally certain actions by people using our services can make it very difficult for us to deal with their enquiry or concern.
In a small number of cases the actions of some individuals become unacceptable because they involve abuse of our staff or our processes. When this happens we have to take appropriate steps. We have to consider whether the action impacts on our ability to do our work and to provide a service to others.
People may act out of character in times of trouble or distress. We do not view an action as unacceptable just because a person is forceful or determined. However, we do consider actions that result in unreasonable demands on our staff to be unacceptable. It is these actions that we aim to manage under the Aberdeen City Council Unacceptable Actions Policy.
The website provides Guidance on unacceptable behaviour for customers.
Case study 1
Mrs C, a council tenant, contacts the council to complain about her neighbour leaving rubbish in the communal areas. As the customer has not yet informed her Housing Officer of the issue, this is treated as an enquiry and the details passed to the relevant officer for the matter to be addressed.
Case study 2
Miss L writes to the council to raise her concerns about a change to the school meals policy. She requests information on what consultation had taken place. This is treated as a Stage 1 Frontline complaint and an officer telephones Miss L to clarify the policy; explain the process followed and advise her of what steps were being taken to relieve her concerns. The customer is advised that their complaint has been upheld. The lessons learned from the complaint are recorded and the views expressed by Miss L and others are taken into account for the policy review.
Case study 3
Mrs S complains that the council did not attend to carry out a bulky waste collection uplift as had been agreed. The enquiry is logged as a Stage 1 Frontline complaint and the responsible officer speaks to the service team and agrees how to resolve the issue, arranging a new time and date to do the uplift. The officer explains the reason for the failed uplift and apologises to the customer. The customer is advised that their complaint has been upheld and is satisfied with the resolution.
Case study 4
Mr F complains that there are a number of potholes on his street. As this is a first time request for a service it is treated as an enquiry. The Roads Service carries out the repairs. Mr F contacts the council again as he believes the quality of a repair done by the council or our contractor is not satisfactory. The enquiry is now logged as a Stage 1 Frontline complaint and the Service examines the repair to assess whether or not it is acceptable. The Service agrees to do more work to resolve the matter which is explained to the customer and an apology given. The customer is advised that their complaint has been upheld. The complaint is resolved at this point and closed. The lessons learned from the complaint are recorded and fed back into a service improvement plan.
Case study 5
Mr P complains about a licensing decision involving multiple council officers. The enquiry is logged as a Stage 2 complaint as it is complex and requires detailed investigation. An acknowledgement is issued to the customer within 3 working days. The Investigating Officer contacts the customer to discuss the complaint to understand why they are dissatisfied and what outcome they are looking for. The matter is investigated and is found to have been handled correctly. A full written response is issued to the customer including the decision that the complaint has not been upheld and signposting to the Ombudsman should they remain dissatisfied with the decision. The complaint is closed.
Please use the links below to access the relevant information.
Firmstep User Guidance
Policy and Procedures
Third Party Consent
Letter and Email Templates
All complaints should be responded to via Firmstep and the associated templates will be accessible through the system.
Stage 2 Investigation Tools and Templates
Root Cause Analysis Investigation Tools
An online learning course has been developed to specifically support the handling of Stage 1 Frontline complaints and can be accessed at http://www.acc-oil.net