Mary Dejevsky: If I try to make a complaint, bureaucracy gets in the way

This excessive formalisation of the feedback process is spreading
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The Independent Online

In front of me I have a neat eight-page booklet (10 if you count the last two, which can be folded, sealed and sent by – first-class – post). It is published by my local council – one of the consistently top performers in the country for efficiency and value-for-money – and it is called, with disarming simplicity, "How to complain".

The title is printed in another six languages, and on page 2 they offer to translate the whole thing into more languages if needed. On page 3 they tell you that it is also available in Braille, large print, audio tape and computer disk. Oh yes, and, at least in its English version, it is written in that slightly patronising, but at least comprehensible, brand of Plain English peculiar to authority.

All of which, you might think, shows a commendable openness to criticism. But does it really? I was handed said booklet with a conspicuously ill will, by someone who had had to ask a colleague whether complaints forms existed any more, before rooting around in a cupboard to find it.

In other words, you had to take the initiative, and make yourself unpopular by requesting it. It was not on display with the myriad leaflets about council services. It was the physical equivalent of being invited, at the end of a long list of telephone options, to "press 8" in the unlikely event that you might want to "make a complaint".

So why did I want to complain? Well, I didn't, not just like that. I had rung up a day earlier to find out how to change the car details on my husband's Disabled parking permit. It turned out that the information was incomplete, which meant a second visit to "One Stop Services". Having made a wasted visit, I wanted some assurance that the right information would be given out in future so that other people would not face two journeys.

In an ideal world, you could make that point, informally and in person, to the office manager concerned and be reasonably certain that something would be done. But I had no confidence that this would happen. The fact that one crucial document was missing on my first visit was greeted, I felt, with a triumphal sort of "Gotcha!" from a receptionist who seemed utterly indifferent to the information given out by phone.

The phone people were, naturally, another department. Do you know who you spoke to, I was asked. If service staff identified themselves by anything more than first names, you might have a chance of remembering, but of course they don't. They won't talk to you without soliciting all your details, down to date of birth and mother's maiden name. But theirs? Well, that's not "policy", is it?

So the relationship is unequal from the start. But that is less my point here than the way in which a complaint that starts out as little more than a helpful suggestion now has to be formalised and fed into a whole official process. My council leaflet goes directly from telling me how easy they want to make it for me to complain to explaining how to go through the "three-stage complaints procedure" and, if I am still not satisfied, how to approach the Local Government Ombudsman.

But that's really not what I, or – I suspect – most people with a relatively minor grouse, need. I just wanted them to care a bit more about the inconvenience that can be caused by inaccuracy; to show a bit more consideration. That's really not a matter for an ombudsman.

Excessive formalisation of the feedback process generally, but complaints in particular, is not unique to the public sector. It has spread everywhere like poison ivy, turning customer service into an "industry". My council even has a "corporate complaints team", paid for presumably by our taxes.

I wouldn't mind betting that the formalising trend has a lot to do with performance targets and bonuses. No one wants to take responsibility for a flaw, lest it reduce the reward. Such prickliness, though, prompts one to ask how open to criticism they really are.

Is the complaints process actually designed to encourage real feedback, or not? If people have to choose between a formal procedure and saying nothing, many will slink crossly back into their shells. The department or business concerned will have no inkling of how it is really regarded, until the customers stop buying or the big, formal complaints start to roll in.

There are plenty of websites out there, started by disgruntled customers, some of which are systematically monitored by the companies concerned. Why should a public service not maintain its own, public, feedback website or, for old-tech visitors, a responses book in the foyer. Not only would unhappy customers get their complaint off their chest, but those providing the service would instantly learn something they need to know.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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