To give the Audit & Governance Committee an overview of the Council’s complaint handling performance in 2020/21 and to demonstrate how feedback from customers has been used to improve services.
Sarah Bogunovic, Head of Customer Strategy and Futures
Jo Lang, Head of Customer Engagement
Key points raised during the discussion:
1. The Head of Customer Strategy introduced her report and highlighted the following:
a) That there were three different complaints procedures managed by three different teams (adult social care, corporate and children’s social care). There were different statutory requirements for each, which was why adult social care only had one stage, corporate two stages and children’s had a three stage process.
b) That it was important not to just look at the numbers when considering complaints handling performance, because low numbers might mean that a council was not open to receiving complaints or customer feedback. However, the overall number of complaints had increased in the last year due to an increase of 49% in complaints about education and children’s services. Numbers had fallen in other areas.
c) There had been a general dip in performance with response timescales, with the exception of adult social care. The Covid-19 pandemic and complexity of complaints received, particularly about education & children’s services, had been factors.
d) The Children’s Customer Relations team were adopting an early resolution model, in line with the corporate approach.
e) There was a significant increase in the amount of financial redress paid in the last year. The majority of this related to education & children’s services. Payments over £1,000 were agreed in conjunction with the Cabinet Member.
f) Pension complaints were included within the report but were managed through a different process.
g) She drew the Committee’s attention to information included within the report about Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) complaints.
h) That the report highlighted what had been done well last year and where improvement was needed. It was pointed out that more compliments than complaints were received and that it was important to present a balanced view of services.
2. Member questions and responses:
a) Why the response times were not being met in 24% of cases and what was being done to improve this?
The Head of Customer Strategy responded that this was reliant on service areas having capacity to respond to complaints and that a number of staff had been redirected for Covid.
The Head of Customer Engagement stated that children’s services needed to do more, that cases could be very complex dealing with different agencies and the numbers of complaints in this area had doubled in the last five years. She went on to explain the early resolution process being brought in this year and that staff training was underway. She also highlighted the importance of building relationships with families, which could take time.
b) What was the total cost of complaints including other costs such as staffing?
The Head of Customer Strategy responded that an exercise was done a few years ago to establish this but that it was complex to calculate. The previous estimate of the cost of an Ombudsman complaint to the organisation was approx. £1,500 per complaint (not taking into account any financial remedies that may be recommended). It was agreed that it would be good to update this exercise.
c) How reliable was the comparisons used for the LGSCO benchmarking as no population figures were given?
Officers responded that the councils chosen to benchmark against were most like Surrey County Council in terms of services offered and their topography (town vs rural). It was agreed it would be helpful to include per capita calculations in future benchmarking. It was also agreed that the annex to the submitted report would be revised to show numbers per population and would be recirculated to the committee.
d) Was the early resolution process enough to resolve the issues in children’s and education and how did 8% escalation rate to the Local Government Ombudsman (LGSCO) compare with other councils?
Officers explained that many of the children’s complaints went back some years and referred to the transformation and improvement programme being undertaken by children’s services. The escalation rate to the Ombudsman had decreased slightly from the previous year; however, because the LGSCO had paused their casework at the height of the pandemic this was reflected in their data which made it more difficult to make meaningful comparisons.
e) With the population in Surrey being approximately 1.2million, could the complaints data be broken down on a geographic basis into borough and district areas?
Officers explained that users of online services did not always give full contact details and they did try where possible to capture location. Work was being undertaken with the supplier of the self-service complaints system to improve reporting. There was also a council-wide piece of work happening to provide Members with better access to local information and complaints data would form part of this. Members requested that this work be expedited.
f) Was one extra staff member within the Customer Relations team enough to get performance back on track and where staff were at fault was there further training?
Officers explained that service complaints should be dealt with by front line staff in the first instance, which would leave the complaints team to deal with more complex complaints. Officers also explained the ‘no blame’ culture, case reviews and learning and improvement processes that were in place. Where potential misconduct is identified, this may lead to disciplinary action following liaison with managers.
g) In response to a question on why there were different response deadlines for different areas, officers explained the statutory requirements in place for the different complaints procedures.
h) There was some discussion on how the committee could help make sure the Council was learning from complaints to improve its services. Officers were aware that the complaints process could be frustrating for residents and that it may not seem easy or accessible. They also spoke of managing expectations, having early and honest conversations with residents and staff focusing on finding solutions where this was possible.
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