Joanna Mowat: Trouble down the line for a shambolic set-up

Leaving callers on the line is no way to run a complaints service. Stock image
Leaving callers on the line is no way to run a complaints service. Stock image
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Just recently Edinburgh City Council received a complaint from a caller who’d been on the line for a staggering 48 minutes before eventually being able to speak to an officer.

As you can guess, the person was not best pleased, but that turned to frustration when the official on the line said they couldn’t resolve the issue, and then astonishment when it turned out the problem was actually being addressed but there was no way of getting through to the staff on the ground to find out.

This is not an isolated incident and this shambolic set-up means staff can’t even let people know when it’s actually doing something good and so fails both Edinburgh residents and council staff.

Take the recent controversy about the amount of complaints about waste collections. We are assured they are now reducing and therefore the service is improving, but the difficulties people have in getting through on the phone and the uncertainty of where problems reported online are recorded makes it difficult to gather reliable figures.

The Conservative Group has been looking at the way complaints are handled and the truth is we just can’t say with any certainty that things are genuinely getting better. Worryingly, we heard grumbles that the council’s current Transformation Programme is not really about improving services but improving the way complaints are handled.

Isn’t it depressing that people really believe the council prefers to concentrate on managing complaints because it accepts the quality of service is so poor?

Surely it’s obvious that the best way to manage complaints is to stop them happening in the first place; that delivering better services will reduce the number of complaints? The mantra in our office is; if the delivery was right the complaints would go down!

We know the changes being put in place through the reorganisation programme are affecting the delivery of frontline services; councillors know council services and staff are under acute pressure because the failures end up in our mailboxes. The oversight we as opposition councillors carry out is increasingly important to counter mixed messages from councillors in the administration as to whether there is a problem or if it’s all OK.

All councillors owe it to the city’s residents to make it very clear to the council executive team that the current situation is not acceptable. A complaint or contact from a resident should be seen not just as an opportunity to fix the problem, but to create a better relationship with the council.

We need to constantly remind the council executive that the council exists to provide services for the people of Edinburgh, but too often it feels as though the council exists for its own ends. So to change that perception, at least two things need to happen as a matter of urgency.

Firstly, complaints figures must be reported regularly to each executive committee so councillors have clear oversight of the numbers of complaints received. Secondly, complaints handling needs to integrate with each council department so that responses are quicker and can be resolved first time. The ultimate goal should be that when a resident puts down the phone down after a call to the council, that their problem is solved.

The council will fail if we expect staff to continue to work under the current conditions and they need to be empowered to use their initiative to solve problems. The overall culture must be to believe that the most important “key performance indicator” beloved by bureaucrats and managements the world over is satisfied residents. If the delivery is right the complaints will go down.

Joanna Mowat is a Conservative councillor for city centre ward