Lifting public sector complaints procedures onto a higher plane

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    A cartoon of a person with a big rock with 'problem' written on it on it's back and another person with scissors who tries to release him from the rock

    Helping people with a complaint is part of good service provision. But how can you help them most effectively? The National Ombudsman offers guidelines with which public sector authorities can professionalise their complaints procedures. We also organise free workshops.

    Having noticed a surge in enquiries from government organisations asking how they should approach certain complaints, in 2018 the National Ombudsman published its ‘Vision on Professional Complaints Assessment’.

    Take the citizen seriously

    The vision document sets out the basic qualities that all good complaints assessors need. Alongside knowledge and skills, they must be able to rely on support and an open organisational culture in which line managers play an important role. A key principle of the vision document is that every complaint or sign of dissatisfaction must be taken seriously, and the citizen’s perspective must be respected.

    More important than systems

    One major problem besetting internal complaints procedures is the style of communication. Members of the public find government organisations to be overly formal and distant. Too often, complaints are dismissed with the words, ‘that is what’s in our system’, implying that the information must be correct. The National Ombudsman has challenged this attitude, stressing the importance of personal contact between government and the citizen. Systems must never be seen as more important than people.

    Workshops

    Eva Roest is project leader of the Professional Complaints Assessment programme. She explains how the National Ombudsman is helping government organisations. “Our investigations often devote attention to complaints procedures. The resultant reports include recommendations for improvement based on the vision document. It is often the government organisations themselves who initiate the process, requesting our help in lifting their procedures onto a higher plane. We can assist them in various ways, including a series of workshops.”

    Improvement

    Eva Roest notes that public sector organisations seem to have taken heed of the vision document and the National Ombudsman’s recommendations. There have been visible improvements. She cites the National Alimony and Maintenance Collection Agency (LBIO) as a prime example.

    The LBIO enforces alimony and child maintenance orders issued by the courts. It therefore deals with people whose relationships have broken down, often acrimoniously.

    Like every government organisation, the LBIO receives complaints. “Over an extended period we received several indications that the LBIO’s complaints procedures were below par,” Eva recalls. “In 2019, we therefore initiated an investigation which looked back over the previous five years to see how those procedures compared to our vision of professional complaints assessment.

    The main conclusion of the investigation was that the LBIO should appoint complaints assessors who are not directly involved in the primary process, and thus more impartial. We identified opportunities to improve the registration and evaluation of incoming complaints. We further noted that communication with the citizen could be simpler and more neutral in tone.”

    Dealing with dissatisfaction

    In its report ‘From dealing with dissatisfaction to learning from complaints’, the National Ombudsman made six concrete recommendations to help the LBIO improve its complaints procedures. “Almost all recommendations have since been implemented in full and the organisation has succeeded in professionalising its procedures. The quality of the letters acknowledging complaints and reporting on progress is very much better.”

    Free workshops

    Since 2018, the National Ombudsman has run workshops for government organisations wishing to learn more about professional complaints assessment. The workshops have a strong practical focus and cover aspects such as:

    • How do you spot dissatisfaction before it becomes a formal complaint? Can the situation be resolved in some informal way?
    • How do you approach complex complaints?
    • Are you always considering the citizen’s perspective and seeking mutually acceptable solutions?

    During the workshop sessions, participants exchange experiences and are given tips that can be put into practice immediately. Based on the ‘Vision on Professional Complaints Assessment’, they are also given a clear account of the role of the National Ombudsman. “The main aim is to start a dialogue with the participants, encouraging them to think about how things can be done more effectively,” Eva Roest concludes.

    Staff from many public sector organisations have now taken part in the workshops. They include the police, the Social Insurance Bank, the Tax and Customs Administration and various local authorities.

    Register for a workshop

    If you are interested in our workshops: email projectpk@nationaleombudsman.nl