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Councillors should be the final arbiters of complaints

Bowen Cllr Mark Bowen, the Deputy Leader of Conservative run Hounslow Council, on how they have made the complaints procedure in Hounslow quicker, cheaper and more effective.

Save money and improve Complaints Management at the same time?  This is what has been achieved in Hounslow.

In addition to being Deputy Leader of the London Borough of Hounslow since 2006, I also have Lead Member responsibility for Customer Services.  As soon as I took on my portfolio, Complaints Management was the area which I immediately identified as the one in need of most attention.  It had become an Achilles Heel and I wanted to see Hounslow turns things around in this area and build a record of resolving substantially more complaints quicker than before.

As with any other Council, Hounslow has a Complaints Procedure.  Most Councils have a three stage procedure, though some have one that is only two stages.  The general rule of thumb is that the later the stage, the higher the seniority of those responding.

One of the first decisions of the current administration was to reduce the timescales for dealing with complaints:

An even more important way forward was in reconfiguring the Complaints Procedure because I was hugely confident that the introduction of a Cross Party Members Panel at the final stage of the Complaints Procedure would make a significant difference. It would raise the profile of Complaints Management in an unprecedented way and it would also assist in making sure that those who complain get direct answers to their questions (even if, at times, those answers are not what they would like to hear).

In December 2006, I paid a visit to the London Borough of Havering as it was the only Local Authority in London at the time to have a Members Panel dealing with Complaints. I was able to sit in on a complaint as an observer and it made me even more convinced that this model was the future in Hounslow.

In March 2007, the decision was taken to set up the panel. As a result of this change, we also removed two positions from the area and merged the Corporate Complaints Team with Access Hounslow.

The panel consists of three Members and is assisted by an Officer from Legal Services, Customer Services and there is a Committee Clerk responsible for taking notes and getting out the Decision letter. Some safeguards were introduced in the beginning such as not allowing a Councillor to review a complaint made by a constituent or that no Lead Member (I am the only one in the pool of panel members) could review a complaint made against an area within their portfolio.

There have been two annual reviews since. The first of those on September 2008. The key bit that is:

“As a result of setting up the Members Complaints Panel, the Corporate Complaints Team was disbanded. This has resulted in savings of approximately £90,000 in a full year.”

The rollout was not perfect and there were some delays in setting up panels.  We have since got through these difficulties.

Our most recent review was last month:

The Local Government Ombudsman said:

“we appear to have received significantly fewer complaints against your council for investigation during 2008/9 than in the previous year. This, together, with my decisions on complaints resubmitted to me suggests that the Council’s procedures have been successful in encouraging earlier resolution of complaints”.

In summary:

  • Members were given a role at the final stage of Hounslow’s Complaints Procedure;
  • Annual Savings of £90,000 have been realised;
  • More complaints are now resolved at earlier stages than before;
  • Fewer complaints go to the Local Government Ombudsman about the London Borough of Hounslow than before;
  • Panel Members have learnt plenty of things about service provision, service areas, legal requirements, statutory obligations that they may not have otherwise (that is how I feel);
  • There are examples of policies being reviewed as a result of some complaints received.

I am confident of further improvements ahead in this area.  It is one of many examples achieved in Hounslow over the past three years of win-win!


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