Don’t complain too much! (?)

dougkSunday, 20 January 2019 - 10:01am

There are occasions where the actions or inaction of a council can be totally frustrating. Their decisions can appear dictatorial and their service levels lamentable. When we feel we have been badly wronged by council it can be so tempting to let off steam and to harangue council staff or even councillors. But we must constrain ourselves from that temptation.

Council staff are entitled to a workplace free from harassment and bullying. Those in the front-line in particular are usually the ones who cop the main onslaught from an angry ratepayer. Their capacity to respond is limited by the instructions and policies emanating from senior staff. They may not even be permitted to escalate our issue; to put us through or forward our concern to staff with any decision-making power. We need to treat them with courtesy and respect.

To address how to deal with complaining ratepayers, MidCoast Council has developed a 31-page Draft Unreasonable Complainant Conduct Policy. Download it and have a read.

Personally I think the policy misses its mark by a mile. It comes across as heavy-handed - with the council, the subject of the complaint, acting as prosecutor, judge, executioner and appeals court. It is not going ameliorate any real or imagined grievance. Its overly bureaucratic mechanisms are likely to exacerbate tensions rather than reduce them.

What council perceives as a vexatious complainant may be someone with a genuine grievance perhaps without the ability to articulate it clearly. Perhaps their grievance is based on a misunderstanding. Maybe they are just wrong. But sending them to the naughty corner is not a solution.

The first step to resolving any grievance is to have someone properly listen to the aggrieved party. It is best if that someone is independent, not part of the same “system” to which the grievance relates. Often, once the heat is taken out, an acceptable way forward can be negotiated. The proposed policy actually reduces the opportunity for an aggrieved ratepayer to be heard.

If a council is encountering so many complaints that it feels it needs a policy as detailed and heavy-handed as this then it may be time for that council to do a bit of genuine introspection. Undertake some analysis of the complaints received. That will give some clues.

Are there fundamental problems with management style, delegations or organisational structure? Are council policies and decision-making practices not well-aligned with community needs? Is council perceived as in-opposition-to rather than in-partnership-with the community it serves? Is council's focus and accessibility not seen as equitable across the whole region? Can council improve the way it communicates and explains the decisions it makes?

If there are many unresolved complaints then that is symptomatic of some underlying systemic problems with the council itself. A healthy, responsive council will receive fewer complaints.

But hey. That’s just my view. What do you think? Make a submission.

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