Arun District Council

Arun District Council



Arun's Corporate Complaints Procedure came into operation in January 1993 following a complete review of the previous procedure. Since then it has been subject to annual reviews and certain changes have been introduced to strengthen the process. However the aim has remained: to have a procedure in place which is easy to understand and simple for the public to follow.

These guidelines are intended to explain the procedure in more detail for operational reference by managers and staff. The last section includes some of the questions about the procedure most commonly asked by staff - and the answers.

If anything is not clear, or if you have thoughts as to how the procedure could be improved based on your own personal experience of dealing with complaints, please contact Ian Sumnall, Chief Executive, on ext 37600.


Listening to the public and monitoring our performance are two of the essential elements of the District Council's Working for the Public programme, adopted as Council policy in January 1988.

A further external factor influencing the need for the Council to have a corporate approach to complaints is that the Local Government Ombudsman will not usually act on a complaint until a council has investigated the matter. That means that if a complaint does reach the stage of being investigated by the Ombudsman, he or she will certainly be looking to see how well our procedure dealt with the problem in the first place.

There are several reasons why an organisation committed to customer care, performance management and Best Value needs a good sound system of dealing with complaints:

•Complaints can act as a barometer of the public's concerns and dissatisfaction

•Monitoring complaints can act as a form of quality control leading to better services

•Monitoring complaints can reveal gaps in services and management systems

What the complaints will do, over time, is to reveal to managers where existing systems are inadequate. The fact that customers feel a need to complain will be recorded and periodic analysis will show where problems are recurring. This may highlight the need for a transfer of resources, service improvement, a change in procedures, more staff training, better information to the public etc.

Complaining to any large organisation can be a bewildering experience. Local authorities are often seen as faceless, bureaucratic and inefficient. The first objective of a good complaints procedure, therefore, has to be to provide an effective means for a customer to make complaints and have them resolved.

Complaints can occur because of poor communications between the Council, its staff and the public. Others arise because information about Council services is not clearly and widely publicised. Or complaints can occur because we have made an error.

The clearer customers' understanding of what they have a right to expect from us, the more focused and appropriate their representations will be.

•Well-publicised and well-run complaints procedures improve communications with the public.

•Customers benefit both as individuals with a problem to be solved and collectively as a result of improved services.

•Feeling that a complaint has been dealt with in a sympathetic and systematic way gives the public confidence in the Council and reduces the level of frustration.

•Having an effective system for complaint handling can reduce the amount of time required to satisfy the customer.

•Effective internal complaints procedures can improve the Council's standing with the Local Government Ombudsman and hopefully reduce the number of cases which reach his/her attention.

•In house circumstances where a complaint is found to be justified - and in some cases where it is unjustified too - we can learn from the incident and improve our service delivery.

Research has shown that most people don't complain - the average business does not hear from 96% of its unhappy customers. But a customer who has an unpleasant experience will tell an average of ten other people about it. If something is wrong, we need to know. We may not always be able to put things right, but we can at least explain why not.


The Council's definition of a complaint is the one suggested by the Commission for Local Administration in England (the Local Government Ombudsman). That is:

"A complaint is an expression of dissatisfaction, however made, about the standard of service, actions or lack of action by the Council or its staff affecting an individual customer or a group of customers"

The complaints procedure does not cover:

•Routine requests for a service or information.

•Requests for information on, or explanation of, Council policy.

•Matters for which there is a right of appeal or legal remedy.

It is important to understand what ISN'T a complaint as far as our procedure is concerned. It's not the person complaining about a wasp's nest in the garden - that is a request for a service. The customer who telephones us to complain about a smoky bonfire polluting the air may term this as a complaint but it is not a complaint about Council service provision. The customer is reporting an incident and expecting us to do something about it. If we then fail to respond effectively, within a reasonable timescale, and the customer has to ring back - then that could become a complaint.

Similarly it is not the company complaining that its planning application has been turned down, for which there is a defined appeal procedure.

An unpopular decision taken by a Cabinet or one of the Council's regulatory Committees, such as Development Control, may bring letters and telephone calls of objection. These are not complaints according to our definition as long as the decision was taken fairly with the relevant facts correctly presented. However they still need to be answered, by the Cabinet Member, Committee Chairman, Director or appropriate Head of Service, explaining the reasons why the decision was taken.


The Council would always prefer to resolve a problem on the spot and the initial approach to handling customer complaints should be to try to satisfy the customer at the earliest opportunity.

If someone is upset because their rubbish has not been collected they don't want to be told that their complaint will be acknowledged within five days, that we will send them a form to fill in and that they will receive a progress report or a full and detailed response from us in 25 working days. They just want their bin emptied!

Complaints leaflets, which include a form, are available in all sections. If a customer wants to make a formal complaint, having been unable to resolve the problem at source, then they should be given or sent a complaints leaflet to fill in. If needed, staff should help the customer to fill in the form. If the contact is by telephone, staff should ask if the customer wants a form to be sent or would prefer to fill it in over the telephone. If the former, the form should be sent with a prepaid envelope for return to Janice Ayling, Corporate Complaints Administrator, who administers the procedure. If the latter, details should be taken down over the telephone, read back to the complainant, then the form sent to Janice in the General Administration Section on the first floor in the Civic Centre. Janice will then send the complaint form to the complainant with a covering letter to ensure that they are happy with the wording of their complaint. They will be asked to sign the complaint form and return it to Janice and to include any amendments if necessary.

Stage One - Fast Track

When a complaint is first received by the Corporate Complaints Administrator and being satisfied that it comes within our definition of a complaint (see above), the Corporate Complaints Administrator will check whether the complaint should be dealt with fast track. In this case Janice will contact the relevant member of staff and ask him or her if the matter can be resolved straightaway without going through a formal process of investigation. Janice will advise the complainant what is being done and by whom. Service areas which operate their own complaints procedure

are operating within this "first stage". If complaints cannot be resolved speedily, they should be referred to the corporate procedure. The response time for a Corporate Complaints Stage 1 is set at 10 days.

Planning currently have their own complaints procedure for dealing with first stage complaints. There is currently a response period of 25 working days.

During the course of daily business, comments and minor complaints are made to Council staff about the services we provide. It would not be feasible for every such complaint to be transferred to a form, referred to appropriate officers, acknowledged by letter, followed up, and monitored. Our customers themselves would no doubt see this as over zealous and a waste of resources.

What we should do, however, is to ensure that comments are welcomed and listened to and, where appropriate, information passed to people who can use it to improve services. The Council's Working for the Public Group will always be interested to hear from staff about ideas for improving customer service especially where these are suggested by customers - special yellow forms are available for this purpose or contact Jaqui Ball on extension 37602. Passing on ideas is one thing that every member of staff can do to help our customers.

Stage Two

It is those complaints which cannot be dealt with straightaway that feed into the second, more formal stage of the complaints procedure. This is where a complaint is investigated by an independent Senior officer of the Council. The period for response to complaints at Stage 2 is 20 working days.

The role of the Corporate Complaints Administrator

Janice Ayling is the Corporate Complaints Administrator who administers the complaints procedure. Janice will:

•Enter the complaint on a centrally held computer program.

•Acknowledge receipt of the complaint within 5 working days with a standard acknowledgement; this will identify whether the complaint is being fast tracked or immediately sent to stage two. In this case, the complainant will be advised of the officer dealing with the complaint.

•Send a letter to Ward Councillors (at stage 2 only) advising that a complaint from a constituent is being investigated (provided the complainant does not objectafter 10 working days).

•Check the Staff and Member Protection Register to advise Investigating Officers if the complainant is potentially violent.

•Monitor progress of the investigation.

•Log off the complaint once dealt with.


Complaints forms are available in all offices and centres but it should also be possible for the customer to give the information to whoever they are dealing with and expect it to find its way into the system. To the customer, we are all "the Council" and it is the job of the member of staff who takes the call or meets the customer to help with form-filling if this is needed and explain what will happen next.

The form has been kept as simple as possible. Basically it asks two questions:

•What went wrong?

•What do you think the Council should do to put things right?

In answering the first of these questions it is obviously helpful if as much detail as possible can be given, particularly dates, reference numbers for correspondence, and the names of officers involved.

Complaint forms are also available via the Council’s website at The guidance notes and form can be found on the home page of the website under the section headed “Do It Online” or ‘C’ under the A-Z. The form can be completed on line, but cannot currently be submitted on line, but must be sent to the Civic Centre.


Complaints will find their way into the system by different routes - by letter, email, telephone or by personal call. Some may be referred by a Ward Councillor. Complaints may also be received via Public Question Time (at Council or Cabinet) at the start of our Cabinet and Full Council Meetings.

If the customer complains over the telephone, you can either send him or her a form, together with a prepaid envelope, OR fill in a form at the time, reading over to the complainant what you have written, then send the form to Janice in the General Administration Section on the first floor in the Civic Centre. Janice will then send the complaint form to the complainant with a covering letter to ensure that they are happy with the wording of their complaint. They will be asked to sign the complaint form and return it to Janice and to include any amendments if necessary.

Completed forms received in the post will go straight to Janice Ayling.

If the complainant comes into the Council offices in person, once again every effort should be made to deal with the problem on the spot. If this cannot be done, then give the customer a complaints form to fill in and offer any help needed in completing it. Once this is done, pass the completed form to Janice Ayling for processing.

Complaints received at Public Question Time should be processed by the appropriate lead officer.



We have taken advice from the Local Government Ombudsman on this point. When investigating complaints, the Ombudsman has a process by which complainants can ask for a review, if unhappy with an initial decision, and may be asked to supply additional information/evidence which is considered material to the decision. There is then a cut-off point at which the Ombudsman will advise the complainant that any further correspondence will be acknowledged and read but unless it contains new material information it will then be placed on file and no further action taken.

However if people complain on a regular basis about different matters then we must investigate each matter. Just because the people concerned are "known complainers" should not prevent their complaint(s) being fully and fairly investigated.


Once again we have sought advice on this from the Local Government Ombudsman. The Ombudsman's own guideline is that a complaint will not be entertained unless it was made to the commissioner or a member of the authority concerned within twelve months from the day on which the complainant first had notice of the matters alleged in the complaint.

However the Ombudsman has discretion to accept such complaints out of time if there are good reasons for doing so such as serious injustice which needs to be remedied, or if the complainant had good reason for not complaining sooner.

From a practical point of view, the complaint must be capable of being investigated so, for example, there will be questions about whether the relevant documents, members of staff, Councillors are still available.

It is suggested that we should follow the guidance of the Ombudsman in this matter.


A rota of Investigating Officers has been established. Janice will allocate complaints to these people and name them on the acknowledgement letter which goes to complainants. Investigating Officers are all senior members of staff - this is one of the undertakings given to complainants - and will never be responsible for the area which is the subject of the complaint. The Investigating Officer role is considered to be part of the corporate responsibilities of staff at this senior level and an Investigating Officer cannot refuse to take on a complaint. It may be that, if the Investigating Officer will be away on holiday for a long period of time, he/she may "miss a turn" - but pressure of work, in itself, is not a reason for being unable to accept this responsibility. All Investigating Officers are busy people! We help each other if we share this particular workload fairly. Janice will allocate an official complaint to the next appropriate person on the list and if that person is unable to take on the complaint at that particular time, it will be the responsibility of their Director to reallocate the complaint.

A "buddy" system is in place to help new Investigating Officers by assigning a more experienced officer to help with early complaint investigations and “difficult” complaints will be given to appropriately experienced investigators.


Each complaint will vary and therefore it is important that Investigating Officers understand exactly what the complaint is about. How a complaint is received should not make a difference to how it is investigated although it may mean that more information is initially available, e.g. a written complaint may be more detailed than a telephone complaint.

When Janice advises an Investigating Officer that he or she has been assigned a complaint to investigate, she will provide a red folder for all file notes. These folders have a simple check list for Investigating Officers to record each step of the investigation. Once the investigation is complete, the file should be returned to Janice without delay; if a review is called for then Ian Sumnall (or another Director if Ian Sumnall has an “interest” in the complaint) or the Chairman/Vice-Chairman of the appropriate Committee (currently the Committee is Performance Scrutiny Committee and the Chairman is Councillor Dr James Walsh and the Vice-Chairman is Councillor Mrs Maconachie)will look first at these file notes before calling for further information.