When the Ombudsman announced her first enquiry into councils and complaints in June 2014, councils accounted for around a quarter of contacts with this office. The volume of contacts was unsurprising considering councils have broad responsibilities, including planning, collecting rates and issuing parking fines. However, this office was concerned about the number of people who were unhappy not just with the council’s services, but also with the way the council responded to their concerns. In some cases, it appeared councils’ complaint handling practices were fuelling grievances instead of addressing them.
Almost five years after the first enquiry, it was time to revisit the issue. This office observed continued room for improvement in the way some councils handle complaints, with many people still expressing frustration to the Ombudsman about responses to their concerns. This office’s advice for councils also needed updating to take account of changes since the Guide was published, including:
- State Government plans to replace the Local Government Act 1989 (Vic) with a new legislative framework for councils
- The State Government’s new performance reporting framework for local councils, which requires them to report publicly on their performance in areas such as roads, statutory planning and waste collection
- This office’s greater focus on human rights and accessibility for people with different communication needs, particularly in the context of dealing with challenging behaviour when people complain.
As the Ombudsman’s 2015 Report noted, complaints are a source of free feedback about services. They can highlight the need to improve services, or at least to explain decisions better.
Good complaint handling is particularly important for councils because of their role in delivering services to local communities. In 2017-18, Victorian councils spent an estimated $8.5 billion on service delivery and managed an estimated $102.1 billion in infrastructure and assets. They provide the type of local services that people use every day – rubbish collection, local roads, parking, planning, health and community services, libraries, parks and swimming pools.