Agenda item

Annual Complaints and Service Monitoring Update Report


Members heard from officers the highlights of the annual complaints and service monitoring data. There had been substantial growth in the volume of informal complaints, from 4,473 to 5,176. This represented an increase of 703 informal complaints, which was attributed to two main service areas – namely, waste and repairs. With regards to waste, this was mainly related to a change of crews covering the routes and there had been some teething issues, resulting in a fair number of reports of missed bin collections. There were also quite a few repair issues, largely concerning the time taken to complete repairs and the time taken to fix appointments with service users.

At Stage 1, there were 816 complaints in 2022/23, up from 802 complaints in 2021/22. At Stage 2, there were 121 complaints in 2022/23, up from 101 complaints in 2021/22. In relation to the Ombudsman investigation for 2022/23, there were 46 complaints, down from 75 complaints the previous year in 2021/22. Officers explained the main reason for this was due to the Ombudsman, during the COVID-19 period, holding back some investigations which caught up in that year, leading to slightly higher figures for complaints in 2021-22.


Members also heard from officers that there had been a slight reduction in the number of compliments. In 2021/22, 349 compliments were received, but in 2022/23, only 245 compliments were received. The primary reason for the decline in compliments was the introduction of wildflowers in 2021-22 that attracted a vast number of compliments from both Councillors and residents writing to compliment the appearance of the wildflowers and to keep it going.

In respect of Members’ Enquiries (MEs) for 2022/23, the figure was 7,805. The Members’ Enquiries for 2021/22 was 9,769. To the members’ enquiries for 2022/23, 1,023 service requests also needed to be added to the equation because on the 01 January 2023, the recording of members’ enquiries through the GOSS system was introduced, from which two different terms were devised. A Members’ Enquiry was defined as one where a ’clear question had been asked that now required investigation by Council Officers, or the supply of information from a Council department’.  Service requests were defined as ‘one-off actions that did not require action by an officer and not investigative activities or supply of information’. In effect, this meant although the figures were by and large the same, the difference lay in the different definitions that had been introduced into it.


Attention was drawn by Members to concerns around the number of complaints not being responded to within 10 days within the Directorate of Place. Members were reassured that Hillingdon Council offered shorter timeframes for responses to complaints than their neighbouring Local Authorities. Officers cited other Council’s targets for responding to complaints at Stages 1 and 2. Harrow Council’s Stage 1 target was 15 working days and 20 working days at Stage 2. Ealing Council took 20 working days to respond to complaints at Stage 1 and 20 working days at stage 2. Hounslow took 15 working days to respond at Stage 1 and 20 working days at Stage 2.


Members were advised that different service areas could need more time to respond to complaints depending on their nature. Planning complaints, for example, usually involved in-depth enquiries and required more careful consideration in terms of providing a response than that of waste complaints. The importance of the quality of the response that dealt with different issues was also noted. Members were reassured by officers that they would look into further addressing this concern going forward.

The Chairman acknowledged the inevitability of some responses being more detailed than other responses, thus requiring more time for comprehensive responses by officers to be put together. It was suggested that providing some explanation to service users about the nature and complexity of responses which would determine response times might be a good idea.


The Chairman sought clarification from officers on whether there was an immediate response of acknowledgment upon receipt of the enquiry from service users, to which the response was that as soon as an enquiry came through, there was an immediate automated acknowledgment. . In the event that officers were approaching the deadline to respond, a further communication would be sent to keep enquirers/complainants updated on the status of their enquiry or complaint. Further to this, the GOSS complaint system was said to help keep service users abreast about the progress of their complaint as they were able to check through ‘My Account’ the progress of their complaint.


Members enquired about what feedback had been received (if any) from Councillors themselves about the ME system that was recently introduced. Some Members viewed using automated systems as a step in the right direction, though there was sometimes frustration around requests not being tailored to Councillors’ needs or that of their residents. This information had been provided as feedback on a number of occasions to improve the service and was shared with Ward colleagues.


Officers were asked to provide feedback and updates on the new Members’ Enquiry process for the Committee’s attention at the next meeting.


Members enquired about the breakdown statistics for complaints in person, in writing, by telephone, website and email, and from which Wards in order to ascertain what kind of ways people were using most to make complaints. The vast majority of complaints made were by email. The breakdown data for complaints could not be broken down by Ward, but officers would provide the breakdown by method outside of the meeting.


There were three different complaints procedures, namely: the corporate complaints procedure; children's complaints procedure; and adults and social care complaints procedure, which all operated in different ways. The adults and social care complaints procedure had only a Stage 1 process. By contrast, the children's complaints procedure had a Stage 1, Stage 2, and Stage 3 process.

Members sought further clarification about why there were so few Stage 3 complaints. Explanations for this surrounded the Council's corporate complaints process. There was a review conducted around six years ago as regards the process in place to deal with corporate complaints, where a decision was made to keep the three-stage complaint procedure. Stage 3 investigations were seldom used, largely because individuals were offered the Ombudsman direct, after Stages 1 and 2 had been followed correctly by officers.

Members raised questions about the financial implications of when a complaint was escalated to the Ombudsman. For the children's complaints procedure, a senior level officer would respond to the children's complaint response at Stage 1. If the children's complaint response progressed to Stage 2, two independent people would be commissioned to undertake an investigation which costed on average between £5,000-£6,000 per complaint and this had to be paid for by the Council.  Where the children's complaint response escalated to Stage 3, each review would cost between £7,000-£8,000. Where maladministration was identified, the Council had to consider whether if they could not put the person back to the position they enjoyed before the error, whether financial redress should be offered.

Questions were raised about what the dividing line was between residents seeking assistance and a resolution as opposed to a complaint, and how such complaints were categorized. This was often a judgement call. Waste collection would almost always be treated as an informal complaint which would then be passed to the service to deal with. More formal complaints would be where an investigation was needed to resolve an issue that had been complained of such as a planning issue, Housing repair, Council Tax, etc.


Officers referred to the Complaint, Compliments and Members’ Enquiries for 2022-23 table, which underlined the total number of complaints progressively reducing as it moved through the different complaint stages, from 5,176 informal complaints all the way through to only 46 complaints at the Ombudsman level. This demonstrated that the complaints procedure was operating in the way it was designed by reducing the complaints as it went along because officers were managing to resolve the complaints at the different stages.


It was noted that the total number of informal complaints deriving from the Place Directorate was considerably higher than the other Directorates but this contained the most number of services in this area i.e. planning, waste, housing, Anti Social Behaviour, etc. 


Members stated that the introduction of Service Requests was a positive step forward, but that the process had been designed around how each department worked, rather than the user. This was comparable to how the resident function of the website operated, where each department preferred to work in slightly different ways to the effect that it was made difficult for IT to arrive at some commonality and consistency across the board. It was suggested that there needed to be more of a shift towards putting the user at the heart of the system in order to get a better grasp on the easiest way Councillors could report service requests.


Members noted it might be a good idea to explore the views of some Councillors who had not embraced the Members’ Enquiry/ Service Request system in order to ascertain whether this was a fear of the system or rather, that the system was too difficult to use and was therefore a barrier that blocked their adoption of the system.


Members changed focus to note about compliments received. Although the number of compliments had declined, Members highlighted the amazing work of the Repairs and Maintenance team which accounted for nearly 80% of the compliments received for Housing Services. Members questioned what the Repairs and Maintenance team were doing differently to receive a larger volume of compliments as compared to other teams.


The Committee heard from officers that the Repairs and Maintenance team had made a concerted effort to ensure that every compliment they received was recorded. Officers acknowledged there needed to be wider communication about ensuring that other services highlighted where a compliment was received. However, it was recognized that some teams were perhaps generally better at raising the profile of compliments received than other teams.

The Chairman conveyed there was sometimes a reluctance to trumpet success, but that it was important where officers were helpful to service users that this was acknowledged, recorded, and passed up the managerial line so that work undertaken by teams could be appreciated.

Members asked about the extent to which mediation or conciliation had been used to get to the root of a problem and achieve resolution, and whether there was any data available regarding this. Mediation was rarely used in terms of resolving complaints, but this was more useful in application when it came to Children’s Services work.

Members also asked about whether there was any data to indicate that some complaints lead to litigation. Where there were ongoing litigation proceedings, officers would not commence a complaint process. Therefore, once litigation was in place, officers would withdraw complaints to allow the litigation to proceed. The Ombudsman would also take the same view that if there was litigation in place, they would not investigate the complaint until litigation proceedings had concluded.


On Google reviews, the London Borough of Hillingdon was rated at 2.4 stars. Members wondered if it was possible to translate the compliments received by Hillingdon Council into the Google reviews, by allowing residents to promote their compliments on Google review to increase the Council’s rating. In respect of the new GOSS system, residents were offered as a first option, the chance to submit a compliment and a second option to make a complaint. Though not many, there were a few compliments that had been submitted through the GOSS system since it was introduced on 3 July 2023.

Members emphasised the point about how there might be flexibility for officers to set clear expectations to residents for those departmental areas that needed more time to respond to queries due to the nature of the issue and not necessarily because of a business performance issue.


Members were made aware that both the children's complaints procedure, and adults and social care complaints procedure were set by statute and therefore, could not be changed. Officers were willing to put forward a proposal in relation to complaint response times as necessary.


In relation to the Detailed Complaint Report for Informal Complaints, Members observed that the increase in informal complaints was in the Repairs and Maintenance area, where residents were dissatisfied with the time taken to undertake repairs. However, it was earlier reported that the Repairs and Maintenance team accounted for nearly 80% of the compliments received for Housing Services. Members therefore questioned if officers had also fed back to the Repairs and Maintenance team by how much significantly the informal complaints had increased.


Compliments were much harder to come by because there was nothing to be gained from someone sending a compliment so when a compliment was received, this was a real bonus for teams. Though there was an increase in the volume of complaints, this was mainly due to issues surrounding time for appointments and the time taken for repair work to be completed. Sometimes the reason for the increase in the volume of informal complaints was as simple as some officers being better at recording the complaints received which subsequently meant that the figures also increased.


The Maintenance and Repairs team kept a spreadsheet to record all the complaints that were received with specific notes about the complaint. Enquiries were observed at management meetings to determine what needed to be done in order to find a resolution. Complaints also tended to be seasonal. In the winter months, the focus of complaints were about heating systems not working whereas in summer, the nature of complaints focused more on damp and mould issues in properties as people did not want to keep their windows open.


Members observed that perhaps the number of complaints and compliments could be attributed to the fact that the number of jobs were still quite backlogged from the pandemic. The number of jobs could be significantly higher compared to previous years.


Officers confirmed that during the pandemic residents were reluctant to allow work within their properties and it was also hard to source material to do the work and this resulted in a backlog of work. Once the restrictions were eased, the backlog of work had to be cleared but materials were in short supply (fencing, bricks, etc) as other organisations were also trying to source these materials. This meant that appointments were being given further ahead and this resulted in complaints, sometimes to try and jump the queue.


RESOLVED: That the Finance and Corporate Services Select Committee noted the contents of the report and provided comments to officers as appropriate.

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