Last month, the Victorian Ombudsman published an updated version of the ‘Councils and Complaints – A Good Practice Guide’ (Version 2) (Practice Guide). The Practice Guide incorporates important changes to enable Councils to comply with current legislation and emphasises the areas for improvement that were highlighted in the Ombudsman’s ‘Revisiting Councils and Complaints’ report.
Councils should be aware that as of July this year, the Local Government Act 2020 (Vic) (Act) requires Councils to have, develop and maintain a complaints policy by 1 January 2022. The Practice Guide appropriately incorporates this requirement from the Act. It is therefore imperative for Councils to review their complaints procedure, ensure that it can adequately deal with complaints made to Council, and is consistent with the Act.
At a minimum, a Council Complaints Policy should have steps for:
- dealing with complaints;
- conducting internal reviews; and
- deciding when to refuse to deal with a complaint because it is otherwise subject to review under other legislation.
A fundamental criteria for Councils to consider is when communication from a member of the public will classify as a complaint. The Practice Guide now provides a definition of “complaints” to assist Councils with this. In summary, a complaint is any expression of dissatisfaction about an action, decision, policy or service that relates to Council staff, a Council contractor or the Council as a decision-making body. This definition mirrors the Act and aims to address the inconsistencies detected within Councils’ classification of feedback received.
The importance of properly classifying a complaint is commonly overlooked by Councils and often mistaken for a service request. This not only impedes Council’s ability to effectively address complaints but it also affects proper record keeping. The Practice Guide provides guidance and examples to help Councils distinguish a complaint from a service request.
The Practice Guide otherwise builds on the three complaint handling principles from the previous practice guide: Enabling Complaints; Responding to Complaints; and Learning and Improving. Councils are reminded of the value in making the complaint process accessible and transparent to the public. There are great benefits to handling complaints with a view for positive change in the Council’s day to day decisions and long term projects. For example, complaints can highlight the needs of the public and the effectiveness of the Council’s services. The Practice Guide constantly encourages Councils to welcome complaints as “free feedback”.
The effectiveness of the way in which Council resolves complaints can act as a vehicle for developing the Council’s role in the community. Councils should ensure that staff are familiar with its complaint process and refer to the Practice Guide regularly. Councils seeking assistance with updating or developing a complaints procedure are invited to contact the Local Government team at Hunt & Hunt.
~ with Michelle Nguyen, Lawyer