COMPLAINT HANDLING GUIDE

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COMPLAINTHANDLING GUIDESetting up EffectiveComplaint Resolution Systemsin Public OrganizationsSpecial Report No. 46 December 2020to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia

As an independent officer of the Legislature, the Ombudsperson investigatescomplaints of unfair or unreasonable treatment by provincial and local publicauthorities and provides general oversight of the administrative fairness ofgovernment processes under the Ombudsperson Act. The Ombudspersonconducts three types of investigations: investigations into individualcomplaints; investigations that are commenced on the Ombudsperson’s owninitiative; and investigations referred to the Ombudsperson by the LegislativeAssembly or one of its Committees.The Ombudsperson has a broad mandate to investigate complaintsinvolving provincial ministries; provincial boards and commissions; Crowncorporations; local governments; health authorities; colleges and universities;schools and school boards; and self-regulating professions and occupations.A full list of authorities can be found in the Ombudsperson Act. The Officeof the Ombudsperson responds to approximately 8,000 enquiries andcomplaints annually.Under the Public Interest Disclosure Act the Ombudsperson investigatesallegations of wrongdoing from public employees in or relating to a publicbody covered by the Act as well as allegations of reprisal.Our Consultation and Training Team offers educational webinars, workshopsand individual consultation with public organizations to support fairness andcontinuous improvement across the public sector.For more information about the B.C. Office of the Ombudsperson and forcopies of published reports, visit www.bcombudsperson.ca.

December 2020The Honourable Raj ChouhanSpeaker of the Legislative AssemblyParliament BuildingsVictoria BC V8V 1X4Dear Mr. Speaker,It is my pleasure to present the Ombudsperson’s Special Report No. 46, Complaint HandlingGuide: Setting up Effective Complaint Resolution Systems in Public Organizations.The report is presented pursuant to section 31(3) of the Ombudsperson Act.Yours sincerely,Jay ChalkeOmbudspersonProvince of British ColumbiaMailing address: PO Box 9039 Stn Prov Govt Victoria BC V8W 9A5Phone in Victoria: 250-387-5855 Toll-Free: 1-800-567-3247 Fax: 250-387-0198 bcombudsperson.ca

From the OmbudspersonComplaints can arise from mistakes, misunderstandings andunexpected problems in all organizations. What matters is howpublic organizations respond – whether they fix the problemand take steps to prevent it from occurring again, or compoundthe initial problem by failing to address it appropriately.Responding effectively to complaints is a critical componentof maintaining public confidence in an organization and itsservices. Members of the public expect to receive high-qualityservices from government and to have their concerns dealtwith fairly and promptly.An effective complaint resolution process can work to restoretrust after something has gone wrong; it can also lead to betteroutcomes for service users and help organizations improvetheir services. Poorly handled complaints, however, have theopposite effect. In such cases, complaints can escalate taking up a disproportionate amountof an organization’s resources and sometimes end in costly legal disputes. Many people whoapproach our office are upset, not just about an organization’s original decision or actions, butwith how the organization responded to their concerns when they raised them.Complaints are free feedback on how well an organization is doing in terms of its systems,services and staff. With this information, organizations have the opportunity to learn fromexperience and implement changes.The BC Ombudsperson has 41 years of experience in responding to complaints about publicorganizations. This guide aims to share our office’s experience and help public organizationsbetter understand what is involved in creating and operating an effective internal complaintresolution system.This guide includes two practical tools for public bodies seeking to improve their handlingof public complaints – a self-assessment checklist and a model complaints policy. Furtherresources are available on our website. Please visit www.bcombudsperson.ca to familiarizeyourself with the other information and resources that we offer.Jay ChalkeOmbudspersonProvince of British ColumbiaComplaint Handling Guide: Setting up Effective Complaint Resolution Systems in Public Organizations1

2Complaint Handling Guide: Setting up Effective Complaint Resolution Systems in Public Organizations

Table of ContentsFrom the Ombudsperson . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .11. Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1.1 What Complaints Are . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1.2 Why Complaints Are Important . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1.3 Fostering a Culture That Values Complaints . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .44452. Guiding Principles for an Effective Complaint Resolution System . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2.1 Accessible . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2.2 Fair . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2.3 Person-Focused . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2.4 Responsive . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .778893. Setting Up a Complaints Process . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3.1 Recruit Skilled Staff . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3.2 Provide the Right Training . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3.3 Develop Complaints Policies and Procedures . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3.4 Use a Three-Tier Approach . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10101011124. Tier 1: Point-of-Service Complaints . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .4.1 Receiving Complaints . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .4.2 Acknowledging Complaints . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .4.3 Assessing Complaints . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .4.4 Managing Expectations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .4.5 Seeking Early Resolution . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .4.6 Maintaining Confidentiality . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .131313141415155. Tier 2: Complaints Needing Internal Review, Investigation or Some Form ofAlternative Dispute Resolution . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .5.1 Investigating Complaints . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .5.2 Resolving Complaints . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .5.3 Communicating Complaint Outcomes and Reasons . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .161618196. Tier 3: Complaints Needing External Review . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .207. Additional Considerations in Complaint Handling . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .7.1 Treating People with Dignity and Respect . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .7.2 Dealing with Unreasonable Conduct . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .7.3 Debriefing and Supporting Staff Who Handle Complaints . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .212123258. Learning from Complaints . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .8.1 Recording Information about Complaints . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .8.2 Analyzing Complaints . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .8.3 Improving Complaint Processes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .262626279. A Final Word . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .28Complaints Process Self-Assessment Checklist . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .29Model Complaints Policy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .32Complaint Handling Guide: Setting up Effective Complaint Resolution Systems in Public Organizations3

1. Introduction1.1 What Complaints AreWe define a complaint broadly as anexpression of dissatisfaction made to or abouta public organization about some aspect ofits programs, services or people where aresponse is explicitly or implicitly expected.1A complaint can be made about a wide rangeof issues and can be made in writing orexpressed verbally to a public organization.A complaint includes:a concern expressed about conduct orservice, which may relate to a failure toprovide information, conduct of staff,the unfairness or unreasonableness ofa decision, and so on, ora request for a review of a decision onan earlier complaintHow organizations define what constitutesa complaint is important. While a narrowdefinition may act to exclude less seriousmatters, a broader definition is preferablebecause it provides organizations with amore accurate understanding of the range ofconcerns that service users have about theorganization.2 Whether a complaint is justifiedor reasonable should not form part of thedefinition of a complaint. From the point ofview of the person making the complaint, theyare expressing their dissatisfaction and that iswhat makes it a complaint.Organizations should also consider whetherthere are any types of communication that itwill not consider as a complaint – for example,where a person expresses an opinion butdoes not expect a response, such as a12344negative comment on an organization’s socialmedia account.Whatever an organization decides, it isimportant that it is clear and transparentabout the types of matters that it will regardas complaints, so that members of the publicare treated in a consistent way. It is also agood practice to record comments other thancomplaints such as suggestions, feedback,compliments and enquiries, because thishelps to build a more complete picture of theexperience of an organization’s service users.1.2 Why Complaints AreImportantPublic organizations that value their serviceusers are also committed to respondingto complaints. When managed effectively bya public organization, complaints have thepower to strengthen its relationships with thepeople using its services.In order to maintain and strengthen positiverelationships, an effective complaintresolution system must have two keyfeatures. First, complaints must be resolvedin a way that is respectful and responsive.3Second, data must be captured fromcomplaints in order to provide feedback aboutan organization’s systems and processes.4Public organizations should use theinformation they acquire from complaints to:provide an appropriate remedy to theperson who was disadvantaged or harmedby an organization’s faulty decision makingor poor service deliveryNew South Wales Ombudsman, Effective Complaint Handling Guidelines, 3rd ed., 2017, vi, citing the Australian and New ZealandStandard Guidelines for Complaint Management in Organizations – AS/NZS 10002:2014 (AS/NZS Complaint ManagementStandard).New South Wales Ombudsman, Effective Complaint Handling Guidelines, 3rd ed., 2017, viTasmanian Disability and Community Services, Good Practice Guide and Self Audit Tool 2017, 2017, 10Tasmanian Disability and Community Services, Good Practice Guide and Self Audit Tool 2017, 2017, 10.Complaint Handling Guide: Setting up Effective Complaint Resolution Systems in Public Organizations

1. Introductionrepair service delivery weaknessesIn organizations that value complaints, seniorleaders:6support decision making about futureconvey to staff that complaints are aidentified through the complaintservice delivery and program development1.3 Fostering a Culture ThatValues ComplaintsWhen we talk about organizational culture,we mean the collective values that existamong people in a workplace, and how theyunderstand their work and their own placewithin the organization’s mandate.5Complaint processes must be supported bya strong organizational culture that viewscomplaints as a key way to receive feedbackfrom the people using the organization’sservices. Without this support, a complaintresolution system is likely to become acollection of policy documents that are notreflected in an organization’s actual practices.56valuable source of feedbackemphasize that the focus is on fixing issuesand improving systemsfoster a culture of disclosure and apologywhen mistakes are madeimplement changes to services, proceduresand practices when issues are identifiedthrough complaintsWhy People ComplainAlthough people raise concerns for a varietyof different reasons, most complaints ariseas a result of unmet expectations. Wherethere is a discrepancy between what peopleexpect to receive from a public organizationand what they actually receive, people arelikely to be dissatisfied. When this happens,Tasmanian Disability and Community Services, Good Practice Guide and Self Audit Tool 2017, 2017, 15.New South Wales Ombudsman, Effective Complaint Handling Guidelines, 3rd ed., 2017, 5; Tasmanian Disability and CommunityServices, Good Practice Guide and Self Audit Tool 2017, 2017, 15.Complaint Handling Guide: Setting up Effective Complaint Resolution Systems in Public Organizations5

1. Introductionpublic organizations have two choices: theycan either increase the level of service theyprovide or work to better manage people’sexpectations about what they should receivefrom the organization.not wanting to be seen as a “troublemaker”People who wish to raise a concern about anorganization generally want to:language and cultural issues – forhave a process where it is easy to makea complaintreceive a service that is responsive totheir needsbe heard, understood and respectedreceive an explanationreceive an apologyhave action taken as soon as possibleAs a starting point, it is important to find outwhy a person is unhappy with a decision, theway a service was delivered, or the level ofservice they received. It is helpful to inquireas to what the person making the complaintwould like the outcome to be. The answer tothis question will typically clarify the reasonfor the complaint, what the organization’sresponse should be, and whether the outcomethey are seeking is possible.fear of retribution or withdrawal of servicefor making a complaintnegative experiences associated withprevious attempts to make a complaintexample, difficulty communicating inwritten or spoken English can make raisinga concern difficult, or where one’s culturalbackground discourages complainingabout government servicesfactors such as age, intellectual or physicaldisability, mental illness and financialconstraintsdaily challenges, such as food or housinginsecurity, that leave people without thetime or capacity to pursue a complaintAs a result of these barriers, a single complaintshould not be dismissed as an anomaly oras unrepresentative, but should instead beunderstood as potentially representing theunvoiced concerns of a larger number ofsilent, but dissatisfied, service users.Why People Don’t ComplainIt is important for public organizations tounderstand that only a small percentage ofpeople who are dissatisfied will actually raisetheir concerns. Contrary to popular belief,many people are reluctant to make a complaintand feel uncomfortable raising their concerns.There are many barriers to expressing acomplaint to a public organization, including:7not being aware of the right to complain, orlack of information about how to makea complaint76New South Wales Ombudsman, Effective Complaint Handling Guidelines, 3rd ed., 2017, 2; Tasmanian Disability and CommunityServices, Good Practice Guide and Self Audit Tool 2017, 2017, 20.Complaint Handling Guide: Setting up Effective Complaint Resolution Systems in Public Organizations

2. Guiding Principles for an EffectiveComplaint Resolution SystemAccessibleFairThere are different models for managingcomplaints based on the structure and size ofan organization, the nature of its work, and theneeds of the people it serves. There are also,of course, important structural elements of aneffective complaint resolution system, such ashaving appropriate policies and procedures.An effective complaint resolution system willalso be guided by a number of key principles,which we describe as follows:2.1 AccessibleA good complaint resolution system must beaccessible and open to receiving complaintsfrom a wide range of people. Organizationsmust work to make it easy for people tovoice their concerns. This requires thatorganizations develop a complaint systemthat is simple to use and is explained in plainlanguage.8 Organizations should also workto make complaint-related publications andresources available in other languages thatare commonly spoken in BC.9Organizations can provide the public withinformation about their complaints process89PersonfocusedResponsivein any number of ways, including through theorganization’s:websitedirect correspondencepamphletspostersmedia coverage, andoutreach activitiesAccessibility also rests on having a rangeof different contact options that are simpleand easy to use and ensuring that there aresupports available for people who need helpwhen making a complaint. Contact optionsmay include a toll-free telephone number,an email and postal address and an onlinecomplaint submission form. Except wherethere is a legal requirement, service usersshould not be required to put their complaintin writing, as this can become a barrier toraising a concern (although organizationscan and should reduce a verbal complaint towriting). An organization’s staff should alsobe available to verbally explain the complaintSee the Government of British Columbia’s online “Plain Language Guide”: nguage-guide .This includes having print materials available in Indigenous languages where applicable. See the Government of BritishColumbia’s online resource WelcomeBC, “Language in BC,” 2019 hColumbia/Language-in-B-C :Complaint Handling Guide: Setting up Effective Complaint Resolution Systems in Public Organizations7

2. Guiding Principles for an Effective Complaint Resolution Systemprocess to service users who may havedifficulty understanding written information.Lastly, accessibility requires organizationsto identify and work to remove any barriersthat could prevent members of the publicfrom making a complaint. For example, thereshould not be any financial char

1 New South Wales Ombudsman, Effective Complaint Handling Guidelines, 3rd ed., 2017, vi, citing the Australian and New Zealand Standard Guidelines for Complaint Management in Organizations – AS/NZS 10002:2014 (AS/NZS Complaint Management Standard). 2 New South Wales Ombudsman, Effective Complaint

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