All complaints entered in Habitat are actioned
The Department generally manages complaints well. Its documented complaint management practices and procedures broadly align with its Strategy, policies and objectives. We found these also aligned with the Ombudsman Western Australia’s complaint handling guidelines. While it is resource intensive, all complaints are recorded and actioned regardless of type or severity. This provides confidence that each incident is investigated and reduces the risk that valid community concerns will be missed.
During the period July 2016 to April 2018, the Department’s Disruptive Behaviour Reporting Line received over 21,000 complaints, or an average of around 1,000 complaints per month. The complaints were about things like yelling, threatening behaviour and noise from cars or loud music. Staff follow a standard process to assess whether a complaint is valid, and investigate and resolve straightforward complaints. We did an in-depth review of 30 complaint investigations from this period and found:
- staff recorded evidence and decisions, though this information was not always available in the ‘Habitat’ complaints management system
- tenants were given an opportunity to present their own evidence
- bias in decision making is reduced by involving at least 3 staff members in case conferences at the end of each complaint investigation where a disruptive behaviour occurred or was permitted by the tenant
- tenants and complainants were informed of outcomes in a timely manner.
Examples of complaint issues are shown in Figure 2.
Most complaints were lodged by neighbours, other ‘members of the public’ and ‘anonymous’ complainants (Table 2). Complaints occurred at similar rates across both metropolitan and non-metropolitan regions, and related to 18% of public housing properties. The Department faces a sizeable challenge to manage the volume of complaints and prevent poor tenant behaviour, so it is even more important to take all opportunities to streamline the process.
Only a small number of complaints (2,410 or 11%) led to a strike against the tenant after the complaint was investigated. Most strikes were issued for ‘disruptive’, the least severe category of behaviour (Figure 3). The number of evictions for this period was also low at 63, or less than 0.2% of all properties. The Department could therefore focus effort on targeting the relatively small number of disruptive tenants that are issued strikes. Better practice, such as outlined in the Guidelines for Complaint Management in Organizations, would see minor grievances resolved without the need for investigation.
Staff have competing priorities and face additional challenges in remote areas
The Department reviews and investigates most complaints, regardless of the severity of the complaint. It issued strikes for only 11% of complaints, but the rest required some level of investigation before each complaint could be closed. This is resource intensive, diverts resources from other activities and is particularly problematic in non-metropolitan offices with less resources, and longer travel times to visit tenants.
Many complaints provide critical information about tenant behaviour and welfare, but are better handled by other agencies. This happens because of a lack of clear information on who to report disruptive behaviour incidents to. For example, complaints about criminal activity and serious physical violence are best directed to the Police. Complaints about minor property damage may also be better addressed through other internal ‘property maintenance’ reporting channels. Investigating all these as complaints about disruptive behaviour is an inefficient use of Department resources.
Overall, the Department meets its target of resolving 90% of complaints within 30 days, with 92% of the over 11,500 complaints per year completed within this timeframe. This target was first set in 2017, to allow managers to monitor performance and identify areas for improvement in complaint handling. We found that all 3 metropolitan offices met this target. However, only 3 of the 8 non-metropolitan offices did – West Kimberley, East Kimberley and Great Southern (Table 3).
The 3 non-metropolitan offices that met the target manage properties in a small number of accessible towns. They also provide additional support to tenants to target offers of support to ‘at-risk tenancies’ and to reduce alcohol-fuelled disruptive behaviour. For example, local ‘outreach’ programs where staff meet and greet tenants, and promotion of the use of ‘Liquor Restricted Premises’.
Longer complaint resolution times in non-metropolitan regions are due to factors like:
- higher number of complaints per staff member in some regions (Pilbara, Goldfields)
- time taken to meet with clients living in remote towns
- additional workload for isolated non-metropolitan staff who are responsible for all aspects of complaint triage and investigation.
We interviewed staff from 3 non-metropolitan offices and were told they had:
- Little time to support tenants due to the demands of complaint administration, and isolation. For example, Karratha staff have a 14-hour return drive to Newman via Port Hedland to visit properties. Staff may only meet disruptive tenants once a year in the more remote towns.
- Limited access to peer, intra-agency and social service provider support, and limited opportunities to exchange knowledge with metropolitan staff. In comparison, metropolitan staff we spoke with reported ready access to support and knowledge exchange opportunities.
All staff could benefit from regular and structured opportunities for knowledge exchange, particularly for more complex cases.
Low staff participation in training is another factor likely to be affecting the Department’s efficient management of complaints. We found staff participation across 4 training modules we reviewed varied from 60% to as low as 13%. This important training covers disruptive behaviour management, family and domestic violence, mental health first aid, and complex tenancies management. The Department recognises that participation in training is inadequate and has developed more comprehensive Job Readiness Training. All staff need to be trained to effectively carry out their jobs and staff participation and engagement in the training is critical.
 AS/NZS 10002:2014 Guidelines for Complaint Management in Organizations recommend that the majority of complaints should be resolved by frontline staff.