Time for council to seek feedback


OPINION: When your waiter or waitress asks you " is everything all right with your meal?", it's because the managers genuinely want to here if there are any problems. Like many Kiwis, I hate complaining. It make s me uncomfortable because I don't like confrontation. But problems can only be fixed if managers know about them, so customer feedback is essential. 

Hospitality businesses live or die on good customer service. If you get served an undercooked piece of chicken, complaining not only gives managers a chance to put it right, it saves them from unknowingly serving it to other customers. They are more likely to thank you for reporting it than get upset at your complaint.

In my experience, the same cannot be said about councils. Why would they rather keep dishing up raw chicken? I’m not saying it’s every time, but it is often enough that if councils were restaurants, they would be shut down as health hazards!

Ten years ago, the occasional issue I raised was fixed promptly. Five years ago, I noticed resistance beginning. Now, the raw chicken is served with feathers! What has changed?

Most bureaucracies hate complaints. It implies something is wrong with the process, but that is impossible because the bureaucrats built the process to prevent mistakes.Therefore the customer must be wrong. Managers don’t want to know about it. There is no learning, and therefore no improvement.

Continuous improvement is the philosophy that built Toyota into the world’s largest car brand. Its main competitors, Ford and General Motors, went from market dominance to nearly collapsing because of bureaucratic inflexibility. Production methods remained stagnant, as the companies assumed patriotic consumers would maintain brand loyalty. They failed to listen to customers who wanted better fuel economy and reliability. After a bail-out and painful restructure, they have improved quality and customer service. Private bureaucracies learn lessons or die out.

Public bureaucracies are monopolies. We know nothing changes and the public carry the burden, until enough angry people demand change. I am at this stage, and I hope enough people will stand with me.

I have never been asked by any council if “everything was all right” with my service. There is no realisation that I am the one paying their salaries. I have to work with councils on every project I do, (around twenty per year), so the occasional mistake, misinterpretation, or exceptional circumstance is to be expected. I always make the point of complimenting good service (which I copy to the server’s manager). I also make the point of questioning bad service. That is my job – I am a professional being paid by my client to do the best I can for my client. Often these mistakes unfairly cost my clients time and money.

The first question is always polite. The bureaucratic response is to ignore it. That’s the easiest thing to do. Most people simply go away. I have a long list of important unanswered questions. 

The second question is still polite, just a little more forceful or demanding. “I am still waiting for a response…” This usually gets the brush-off. A brief reference to some process or policy suggesting I have got it wrong, or that is just the way it is and it can’t be changed. Unless you are familiar with the technical rules, you are likely to give up at this point. 

Unfortunately I am familiar with the technical rules so this technique gets me frustrated. It shows the staff in question do not want to resolve the issue. So-called public servants are refusing to serve the public. Going back a third time is likely to be an inefficient use of my resources. This is where I elevate it to management. 

Unlike restaurant managers, council managers don’t want to hear of any problems. The “ignore” and “brush off” are repeated. Once they realise I am not going away, more advanced techniques are applied. I have the “already sent you a letter” lie. I know this because the non-existent letter is referred to by two different dates, showing the council doesn’t actually have it on file.

 I even have the “investigation was carried out and processes were followed correctly” letter, which managed to pack seven factual errors into its half-page length thus demonstrating no investigation was carried out.

A colleague recommended the simplest way to get around the brush-offs was to be rude. Continuing the metaphor, this means telling the raw chicken servers to do their plucking job. Apparently this sends the message that you are not going to go away and you are going to be as belligerent as they are to you. The New Zealand Bill of Rights 1990 protects freedom of expression, so you have the right to “impart opinions of any kind in any form”.

I hate doing it, but it forces a response. It also sets up a clever trap. The bureaucrat tries to claim the moral high-ground with feigned offence, but fails miserably because school yard language does not offend as much as breaches of the Building Act Section 222, the Crimes Act Section 219 and 240, and the Local Government Act Section 150 to name just a few of the serious issues I have complained about.

However, I think we would all prefer council management to simply change the way they address complaints. Each one is an opportunity to make councils better. If it is done first time, then polite respect will be restored.


This product has been added to your cart