This post is taken from a presentation given at the third Disability Conference; Another complaint, another Improvement. Why is it so Difficult to complain? Making your complaints processes more accessible.
It has not been in the Kiwi DNA to complain, and especially not disabled people, at least not to complain formally, but we are learning fast in the post Human Rights Act, Health and Disability Commissioner Act and the United Nations Convention on the rights of people with Disabilities (CRPD), even the post-Fair Go environment. Disabled people are finding and using their voices to complain, or as one speaker put it, to speak out.
Why complaints are critical in a human rights environment
It is critical that service providers complaints processes are accessible. Complaints lead to service improvements and contribute to achieving human rights for disabled people. An important element of human rights is that people must be able to complain and seek redress when things go wrong.
People will share their stories of bad experiences widely, in their communities and on social and general media, and these stories can be harmful to your organisation and reputations. The media are becoming more interested and are increasingly taking such stories seriously, especially in light of recent high profile abuse cases.
The social media go on regardless. If you are not participating in social media you don’t know what people are saying about you. While this raises questions about time and resourcing for smaller organisations, monitoring, careful management and innovative ways of keeping tabs through social media are important.
We are well beyond the charitable days when people who received services from disability support organisations had to be constantly grateful and say thank you for everything, and be grateful for anything, no matter what quality. Of course that does not mean that we should not appreciate good service.
Attitude is all
It is all about attitude, to taking complaints, and to service users. The glass can be half empty or half full on both counts. Respect for service users and their right to take complaints is fundamental. Well-meaning words on paper are not enough. You have to walk the talk.
Complaints should be seen positively, as a means of improving relationships, learning and making positive change and providing better services. Complaints are helpful.
Accessibility is a broad issue and a strategic one.
Some of the issues underpinning accessibility are about how comfortable and confident people feel about complaining, and the same is true about those who receive complaints.
Complaints processes are all about openness and good communication at every level. The organisational culture that values community connectedness and processes with integrity will be more accessible than one that does not. An open, accessible, accountable culture building strong trustful relationships with those who use the services will contribute to an organisation where people feel they can speak out when things go wrong.
Speaking out may happen differently for different people. Listening also takes different forms. Recognition of these differences is important.
It is ironic that when researching this presentation I found some information on ‘so called’ accessible complaints procedures available in inaccessible pdfs! Happily they were not New Zealand disability support organisations.
But I did find it quite hard to locate complaints processes on several disability service provider web sites I looked at, and very easy and clear on one other. Some were not overly welcoming, for example one large provider did not have an online form, giving an email address only. This can be confusing because it may open a new version of the email program which is annoying and a usability problem. To avoid opening a new version I had to cut and paste the address. A well designed and accessible online form can also ask some helpful questions. The more options for complaints the better.
Knowing about and being comfortable with the process
People don’t always know how to complain, the way the process works, and how to complain appropriately. They may be afraid of the consequences of making a complaint.
There are also some underlying general factors which affect the accessibility of complaints systems. They apply across the board, but have particular resonance for the situation of disabled people. If you need a service, and your provider is the only game in town you may feel particularly vulnerable if you complain. It is necessary for providers to understand and compensate for this particular power in-balance.
Develop and implement an accessibility policy
There are some important strategic considerations needed before thinking about a complaints process. One very important one is an accessibility policy. This should cover everything in the organisation from physical to electronic access. It should have associated guidance and standards.
For a process to be accessible and actually work complainants need to;
- Be taken seriously and treated respectfully
- Be heard
- Be safe and not be victimised for complaining
Make it easy to complain.
If like the hitch hikers guide to the galaxy your complaints process is on the equivalent of Alpha Centauri it will all be pointless. Make your complaints process easy to find and inclusive. Accept complaints in a variety of ways. If you don’t they will get around anyway through social media and word of mouth and possibly become distorted.
If complaints can be made by letter or in writing only, many people, even those who are perfectly literate and able to write a letter will find it difficult to complain because they may be upset or stressed at the time they want to complain.
Complaints and related correspondence should be accepted in a number of different ways including
- in person – face to face
- over the phone or Internet, including by the Relay Service
- online forms
- in writing via email, fax and letter
- Access should be provided to translating and interpreting services for non-English speaking people.
- Complaints in Maori and New Zealand Sign Language should be accepted.
- Complaints from Pacific Peoples should also be welcomed.
Accessibility should include access for children and older people as well as for the range of disabled people.
The reason I take such a broad approach to accessible complaints is that, even if your organisation provides services to a defined group of disabled people, you can’t assume they won’t have other impairments or identities, or that their whanau or support people won’t have other impairments or be from a variety of ethnic groups. People and families are complex, and have complex and rich identities which we ignore at our peril
- Complaints are Strategic Complaints, and the way they are processed are strategic, part of your PR and communication strategy. You need policy, guidance and robust procedures
- Have an accessibility policy with implementation guidance for staff
- How to complain Service users must know they can complain and be supported independently if necessary
- Make your complaints process easy to find, or people might think they can’t complain, or that complaints are unwelcome. They won’t complain if it is too hard.
- If complaints are easy to make, you are more likely to get some good ideas and avoid people taking to the law or to the media.
- Have a variety of ways to complain and clearly communicate their availablity
- Structure the process so it asks questions to help the complainant, and you, clearly identify the problem complained about, and what they would like to happen as a remedy
- If people need support to complain, make it clear they can bring a support person of their choice
- Empower all staff to take complaints, invaluable in very small organisations.
- Any written material should be in plain everyday language and not include confusing legal terms or jargon. Many disabled people have poor literacy. Easy Read may be an option too.
- Make sure your web site is accessible and has an easy to find, accessible online complaints form, along with other alternatives. Some people find it easier to complain online.
- Your buildings should be properly accessible, regardless of the service.
- Make sure you provide relevant material in formats other than pdf.
- Your staff should know how to use the Relay Service and frontline staff could take a Sign Language taster class during Sign Language Week or classes offered in their communities.
- Check people’s requirements for communication when they complain.
- Have toll free numbers if your services are offered beyond the free call area.
- Use social media to take complaints and always respond when people do, a good reason why you should be active and involved in social media.
- Remember not everyone has access to email or the web.
- Timely attention to complaints and their resolution is critical. Having some internal standards might be useful.
- Analysis of complaints and a feedback loop should take into account how well you are doing all of the above as well as the type of complaints you are receiving.
Accessibility is a journey. Make it an enjoyable and rewarding one for everyone.