Auckland Council Six Pages of Flannel

On 28 February 2013 I addressed a Full Council meeting on my concerns following the discovery that my emails to elected representatives — Councillors and Local Board members had been blocked for a period of eight months. An investigation and reort back was called for by Council. Here is the report to a Full Council meeting on 23 May –heavy on assertion and light on fact. I regard it as unsatisfactory.

Review of external customer, elected member and staff communication protocols

File No.: CP2013/09023

Purpose
1. To report back on the review of the management of customer communications, and to seek approval for a policy to manage the interaction with customers who have higher demands on council resources.

Executive Summary
2. The governing body asked the Chief Executive to review how the council manages complex complaints between customers and staff and elected members. This was in response to a governing body discussion regarding the council’s process for responding to customers who frequently make complaints or have high information needs.

3. At the time, councillors were advised that on some occasions emails from high demand customers have been redirected to senior staff to manage. Councillors were advised that this occurred very rarely, and only where the customer and the council would benefit from a more structured approach to complaint resolution. The governing body directed the Chief Executive to suspend the case management process until a review was undertaken (GB/2013/15 refers).

4. As requested by the governing body, a review was conducted. The review was undertaken by an external party, supported with legal opinion, reporting to the Director Risk and Assurance.

5. The council receives on average five thousand complaints and one thousand Local Government Official Information and Meeting Act (LGOIMA) requests each year. The vast majority of complaints or information requests are addressed satisfactorily.

6. There are a very small minority, on average no more than ten annually, complainants who make numerous complaints and regularly seek information requests. At times, this conduct places stress and strain on council resources. Where this occurs, the complainants conduct goes beyond being reasonable, to being unreasonable. The council’s process for managing everyday customer complaints is not appropriate for managing unreasonable customer behaviour. To address this issue, the Chief Executive implemented a case management process which has been suspended pending the outcome of the review.

7. The external review of the council’s case management approach confirmed that it is prudent to put in place a formalised process to manage unreasonable complainant conduct (UCC). While the review did not highlight any significant inadequate or ineffective controls with the case management approach, with the exception of several process issues, it did confirm that the council has to adopt a more formalised UCC policy. This is in line with best practice guidance produced by the Office of the Ombudsman in New Zealand and Australia. The separate legal review concluded that the council is not only empowered to adopt such a policy but, given the seriousness of the issue, is obligated to do so.

8. The Chief Executive recommends that the governing body approves the implementation of a formal UCC policy to cover off legal and health and safety risks to staff and customers. Officers have attached a policy for the governing body’s approval. The policy is based on the best practice developed by the Ombudsman.

9. The proposed policy does not include elected members, the Mayor’s Office or Council Controlled Organisations (CCOs). Councillors should consider if, and how, they want to be included in the proposed UCC policy. Officers recommend the UCC policy is forwarded to CCOs for their consideration and adoption.

Recommendations
That the Governing Body:

a) note that an external review identified that Auckland Council does not have an approved policy, procedure or protocol to manage high demand or unreasonable customers;

b) note that the external review concluded that the lack of a formal policy and documented approval process over the case management protocols employed within council could result in foreseeable legal and health and safety risks to staff and customers materialising;

c) note that the Office of the Ombudsman has produced best practice guidance on the management of unreasonable complainant conduct and recommends that public sector organisations adopt a formalised policy;

d) approve the implementation of an unreasonable complainant conduct policy consistent with the findings of the external review and based on the best practice guidance published by the Office of the Ombudsman, and this is adopted as soon as practicable to reduce risks to council and customers.

Discussion
Context

10. The governing body requested that the Chief Executive review the council’s management of the external customer, elected members and staff communications protocols (GB/2013/11 and GB/2013/15 refers). This was in response to a complaint that some correspondence was being case managed by senior staff.

11. The Chief Executive asked KPMG and Meredith Connell to review the council’s processes.
Their observations are summarised below and KPMGs review is attached.

12. This report also provides the governing body with an overview of the council’s process for managing the majority of customer queries, information on how more complex queries are handled, and a recommendation that the council adopts a policy for managing unreasonable complainant conduct (UCC). The proposed UCC policy has been drawn from best practice developed by the Office of the Ombudsman in New Zealand and Australia.

Explaining how Auckland Council manages customer queries

13. The council receives on average five thousand complaints and one thousand LGOIMA request per year through phone calls, written correspondence and emails (collectively termed ‘correspondence’). Correspondence is managed in one of three ways:

i. Routine resolution of a customer query by council staff

ii. Elevation of a complex query to be resolved by a senior staff member

iii. Redirection of a customer who has persistent complaints over time to be coordinated by a dedicated senior staff member.

The majority of customer queries are resolved by the council’s operational departments

14. The Customer Services department records all complaints received in a centralised system.
The complaint is then referred to the appropriate staff member (subject matter expert) within the council to investigate and respond directly to the customer. Every complaint receives a written response, generally within ten days. The complaint will be resolved by:

i. review of existing case notes, policies or procedures , and response with an explanation in writing to the customer

ii. discussion with the customer by telephone or email to resolve their complaint or provide an explanation, followed up by a written response

iii. meeting with the customer in the case of complex or escalated issues.

15. The complaints process is being reviewed as a Transformation project to accommodate changes related to NewCore, and to ensure there is a consistent quality of customer experience across the organisation.

Some complex queries are elevated for resolution by a senior staff member

16. Occasionally, correspondence has to be elevated to a senior staff member. This can occur when the nature of the issue is sensitive, or complex, or requires a senior presence to resolve. These issues will either be elevated by the Customer Services department to their most experienced staff in a specialist problem resolution unit, or is correspondence directly received and dealt with by the offices of the Mayor, or Chief Executive or Chief Operating Officer. Senior managers have a strong oversight of the issue, are hands-on in finding a solution and sign-out the final correspondence to the customer.

17. Generally, these are isolated issues. Once resolved, the correspondence between the customer and the relevant office is closed.

Some complainants are managed by a dedicated senior staff member

18. A small proportion of complaints and queries are repeatedly received from a very small number of customers. Unlike the vast majority of issues that are satisfactorily resolved in the processes outlined above, the nature of the queries from persistent complainants can be varied and sometimes impossible to resolve. Currently, less than ten customers fall into this category.

19. The Ombudsmen in both New Zealand and Australia recognise that public organisations work with a number of complainants who make multiple queries which are difficult, or impossible, to resolve. The Office of the Ombudsman defines unreasonable complainant conduct as any behaviour by a current or former complainant which because of its nature or frequency raises substantial health, safety, resource or equity issues for the parties to a complaint.

20. Given these issues, it is appropriate that the council puts in place a process that helps the organisation address the issues raised by UCCs. Prior to the governing body’s meeting on
28 February 2013, the council managed unreasonable behaviour through its case management process. This ensured that a holistic approach could be taken to addressing complainant’s issues, and to reduce the impact of stress on staff below senior management level.

21. The governing body asked the Chief Executive to review this aspect of the council’s interaction with customers.

22. The external review has been extremely constructive. It has confirmed that UCCs exist as a category of customers, and the council has an obligation to manage UCCs. The external review has also been helpful in explaining how the council’s current approach should be improved, and recommends that the council adopts a formal UCC policy to reduce risks to the council, its staff and the complainants themselves.

An external review of council’s process for managing high demand customers

23. The Chief Executive asked KPMG and Meredith Connell to provide an independent and objective assurance that the external customer, elected member and staff protocols have adequate and effective controls. The reviewers were asked to identify and evaluate the adequacy and effectiveness of the communication controls, and to establish the legal context for the communication processes.

24. The external review found that the council has an informal case management process for managing high demand customers. However, this process is not formally approved by councillors and it does not fully meet best practice. This could result in risks to staff, elected members and customers not being adequately mitigated.

needs to be managed and recommends that council adopt and implements a formal written policy.

26. The review concluded that the council is not only empowered to adopt such a policy but, given the seriousness of the issue, it is obligated to do so. The review identified guidance produced by the Office of the Ombudsman as relevant content for such a policy. This will help the council achieve a balance between its obligations to ratepayers and the interests of its external customers, while reducing the legal and political risk for council.

27. The remainder of this section summarises the reviews findings.

General communications between customers and council

28. The reviewers confirmed that the council has multiple entry points for general communication through which a member of the public can communicate with staff and elected members. The Customer Services department is the key customer facing unit which has embedded policies and procedures. The council also has policies and procedures for processes governed by statute, such as submissions, hearings and Local Government Official Information and Meeting Act 1987 (LGOIMA) requests, which are managed by other departments across council depending on the nature of the engagement. For example, Democracy Services manages the processing of LGOIMA requests.

29. The reviewers confirmed that the council has a complaints management procedure which is published on the council website (http://www.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/EN/ContactUs/complaints/Pages/home.aspx).

The rationale for case management in some instances

30. In relation to the council’s ‘case management’ processes, the reviewers confirmed that council undertakes case management when it has been established that a customer would benefit from specific management by a senior manager to ensure a better service to the customer and the council.

31. Based on conversations with senior managers, the reviewers reported the benefits of case management occurs:

i. When customers who are not satisfied with the answers provided to them would then contact multiple areas of council in an attempt to get a different answer. This creates additional costs and ties up resources. Case management ensures that the query is managed efficiently.

ii. To ensure a consistent response if the customer complains to multiple parties. This reduces confusion and saves time for the customer.

32. The reviewers noted that in some cases, after a complaint had been thoroughly investigated, the customer simply refused to accept the position and continued to escalate the issue.

33. The reviewers reported that some staff described the ‘debilitated effect’ that a high demand customer can have on a staff member. In some cases this resulted in staff feeling stressed, harassed, unsafe and in some cases physically threatened.

The use of email filtering

34. As the basis of the review stemmed from the redirection of some emails to a single member of staff, the reviewers reported on the council’s methods for filtering emails. It found the council has two primary filtering methods.

35. The first filter prevents inappropriate emails from entering council. Blocked emails include those containing viruses, pornography, spam and direct marketing.

36. The second filter involves some emails being redirected to nominated email addresses or email folders. The reviewers identified three email redirection options. These included emails that can be:

i. redirected from reaching all council email addresses to the mail address of a senior manager looking after a customer.

ii. redirected from reaching a particular council email address and are instead redirected to a designated mail folder. The email is still able to reach other council email addresses.

iii. redirected from reaching all council email addresses and are instead redirected to a designated mail folder.

37. The reviewers found that emails were redirected 17 times, three of which were part of a case management process. The others were redirected because of spam content (5), health and safety concerns (2) or because they were identified as originating from a high demand customer (2). The review did not identify the source of the remaining five.

Reviewer’s observations about the council’s existing process for managing high demand complainants

38. The review did not highlight any significant inadequate or ineffective controls with the case management approach, with the exception of the following process issues:

i. The absence of approved policies, procedures and guidelines to deal with high demand customers. The council has drafted guidance, but the guidance has not yet been approved or implemented at the time of the review.

ii. Where emails are redirected to designated email folders there was a lack of monitoring of correspondence from high demand customers. This creates a risk that genuine requests for council services can be overlooked.

iii. Instances of inappropriate authorisation to redirect emails. The reviewers recommended that authorisation to redirect emails should only come from nominated ELT management. In the absence of appropriate authorisation, there is a risk that there could be an inconsistent application of the criteria to redirect emails.

iv. Lack of consistent record keeping of email redirection. The reviewers recommended that the council should have standardised documentation to record the reasons for redirecting emails.

v. Inconsistency of informing the complainant. The review found that there was some inconsistency in the decision to inform the customer that their emails were being redirected.

vi. No legal opinion in some instances. In some instances, the reviewers could not find evidence that the council’s General Counsel had been consulted. This creates a risk that proper consideration is not given to the applicable legal obligations.

vii. Lack of review of email redirection list. The reviewers could not find evidence that the council undertook formal periodic reviews of the rationale for a customers email to be redirected.

Legal Overview

39. The KPMG review was augmented with a review by the council’s external legal advisors.
Meredith Connell strongly recommends the council implements a formal written policy to replace its informal protocols. In their opinion, the council has an obligation to develop a policy to manage unreasonable complainant conduct and should do so in order to reduce legal risks.

40. In the absence of a policy, these risks include:

i) Detraction from the performance of statutory functions

ii) Civil and criminal proceedings in the event that an employee suffers harm or works in an unsafe environment

iii) Civil proceedings for breaches of the Bill of Rights Act 1990; judicial review or negligence

General, Local Government Commission or a Select Committee.

41. These risks are reduced by the adoption of a formal policy.

Next Steps

42. The review’s findings confirm the need for a formal policy to manage unreasonable complainant conduct. The council has a duty of care to staff to ensure their safety and well being. The council also has an obligation to customers to ensure they have good access to services. The development and implementation of a formal UCC policy would mitigate the identified risks.

43. The governing body is requested to endorse and implement the development of a UCC
policy which will be implemented by the Chief Executive.

44. A cross council team from customer services, democracy services, legal, risk and assurance, communications and public affairs, and the Chief Executive’s office has developed a draft UCC policy based on the Ombudsman’s guidance.

Consideration

Local Board Views
45. Local Board views have not been sought for this report.

Maori Impact Statement
46. An assessment of Maori impacts has not been undertaken for this report.

Implementation Issues
47. If approved by the governing body, the recommendations of this report will be implemented immediately. Customers who fall into the UCC category will be notified and advised.

Attachments

No. Title Page
A KPMG External Review 61
B Auckland Council Unreasonable Complainant Conduct Policy 75

Signatories

Authors Michael Quinn – Executive OfficerHelen White – Manager Public LawSally Woods – Manager Business Support, Customer Services
Authoriser Doug McKay – Chief Executive

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