LBWF and customer service: ‘I wouldn’t even give this council 1 star’ UPDATED

LBWF likes to project itself as a ‘forward-thinking’ and ‘innovative’ council, listening to the preoccupations of its residents in order to deliver ‘high-quality public services’, and thus improve everyone’s lives.

But as this blog periodically points out, projected image and hard reality are often two very different things.

A further depressing example of such divergence is the way that LBWF handles customer service. For though the oft repeated official mantra promises openness and responsiveness, many of those who rub up against the Town Hall at close quarters find that these are exactly the qualities which seem to be most lacking. Phones and e-mails are rarely answered, documents ‘lost’, officers remain uncontactable, and issues, however urgent, hang unresolved for weeks and months.

Of course, little of what goes on is recorded, as those seeking answers grow tired of chasing and then give up. However, that said, there are a couple of sources that at least hint at the scale of the problem.

One is Google reviews.

Currently, 138 comments about LBWF have been left online, the large majority fairly recently, and cumulatively the outcome is an average star rating of only 1.6 out of five (and a few high scores artificially inflate even this).

Some of the comments are short and decidedly sharp:

‘Impossible to pay online, impossible to get through on the phone, impossible to load any information on the website! Impossible to navigate the website! What is this???’

‘Half a star. No telephone numbers, anyone would think they didn’t want residents to call??!’

Others describe sagas that are almost painful to read:

‘Would prefer to give zero stars. It is impossible to speak to someone coherent and polite. I have been accused of lying, I have had a court summons as “we had not paid our council tax”. I send weekly screen grabs of my account to prove that this is absolutely not the case. I am heavily pregnant and the way you have treated and spoken to me is unacceptable. You do not respond to my emails claiming I have paid everything so what on earth am I meant to do. What a shame LBWF is run so terribly. Clearly many people have issues with the council. Update on 9 July 2019 Waltham Forest council finally accepted their wrong doing. They had nearly £500 of overpayments from our account. They accepted that they sent the court summons as an error. They have refunded us the court summons fee, located two additional payments of £128 which they have refunded to us and given us £100 compensation. I chased this matter for over 6 months but I am relieved it is sorted’.

In general, the tone is exasperated, even angry, with the latter account’s parting shot – ‘Unfortunately you have to chase daily to get anywhere’ – well encapsulating the common view that, whatever the rhetoric, the Town Hall too often only cares when it is absolutely forced to.

A second bellwether is the way that LBWF treats legitimate Freedom of Information Act inquiries.  As a previous post (referenced below) points out, in about a third of cases, LBWF currently misses its legal obligation to produce requested information within 20 working days; and also publishes comparatively very little about how it complies with the Act’s wider requirements.

That is bad enough, but there is more, for example, the issue of appeals.

After receiving initial answers, if those seeking information feel dissatisfied, they have the right to call for a review, which also has to be completed in 20 working days.

There are apparently no published figures about LBWF reviews and their outcomes, but my own experience, gained over a decade or more, offers only limited comfort.

The good news is that reviews often find LBWF to be in error, and order a re-response. But what’s not so satisfactory is the insight that emerges about why such a situation has arisen in the first place.

For, as the two rather different examples appended below amply demonstrate, in those instances where LBWF admits it has got things wrong, it’s usually not because the issue at hand is complex or difficult, but simply because insufficient care has been taken from the outset.

In other words, it is all entirely avoidable.

Two further points are pertinent. First, by treating residents as it does, LBWF unnecessarily spends a good deal of public money that could be put to much better use. The Freedom of Information review process is a classic example. A senior officer has to consider the review request, evaluate the evidence, and then write a careful letter setting out his or her decision. That takes time. And if the review is upheld because LBWF has messed up, the cost of that time is entirely wasted money.

Second, the impact of LBWF’s indifference is markedly regressive.

Those with a good command of English, a home connection to the web, and plenty of time on their hands, usually will be OK. They have the wherewithal to persevere, and eventually grind out the required result.

It is those who are not so favourably situated – for example, the poor and marginalised – who will be most disadvantaged. Indeed, faced with having to navigate through procedures which seem to be at best uncongenial, many will simply give up, thus remaining excluded from yet another part of what for the majority constitutes ‘normal life’.

And that is an uncomfortable note on which to end.

 

11 July 2019

Dear Mr. Tiratsoo,

We have responded to your case with reference number CU127006021.

It has been brought to my attention that you requested a review of your Freedom of Information request (FOI) in your email received on 26th June 2019.

I am writing to advise you that I have reviewed your FOI request. This letter sets out my findings, conclusions and is the formal response.

I wish to advise you that the parameters of this review are in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Summary of your FOI Complaint:

You submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Information Officer on 29th April 2019. You raised a complaint to the response you received as follows:

The redactions made to the listing of those who sit on the Connecting Communities Board.

The council’s failure to provide a response within the statutory timeframe.

How I have considered your FOI Review:

In order to address your review request, I have considered:

- Your FOI Request

-The availability of information at the Council

- The FOI response received.

Findings:

Your FOI was logged by the Information Officer on 29th April and triaged to the Service for fulfilment.

A table outlining the Names of members of the Commissioning Board was provided to you.

Upon further examination, it was identified that a column was missing from the information you had received. This had been deleted in error by the officer who prepared your FOI response. The missing column indicated the Members organisation. This was an error made by the service rather than an intentional redaction applied.

The Commissioning Board which enquired about has now been disbanded and replaced by the Connecting Communities Executive Board of Trustees. I have attached the membership list this board.

At the time the officer dealing with your request had received a similar request relating to the MHCLG commissioned survey and had misunderstood your request as being in relation to this. The officer then realised that this survey was not the subject of your FOI request, and compiled the results of the resident Insight Survey which was provided to you.

These activities caused a delay in responding to your request within the statutory timeframes.

The required fulfilment date for the FOI was 29th May 2019.

The FOI was issued to you on 21st June 2019.

Conclusion and decision

Your complaint in relation to your FOI has been upheld and we apologise that a human error resulted in one column of information being omitted. We further apologise for the delay you encountered on this occasion in receiving a response to your FOI.

The officer who complied the information for your request is employed by the Council. To avoid future delays, and to ensure that customers are kept informed when a delay is likely to occur, the service will issue guidance to all Officers who handle FOI requests.

 

31 May 2019

Dear Mr. Tiratsoo,

We have responded to your case with reference number CU118537490.

It has been brought to my attention that you requested a review of your Freedom of Information request (FOI) in your email received on 13th May 2019.

I am writing to advise you that I have reviewed your FOI request. I wish to advise you that the parameters of this review are in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

This letter sets out my findings, conclusions and is the formal response.

Summary of your FOI Complaint:

You submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Information Officer on 15th March 2019 and have not received a response to your FOI.

How I have considered your FOI Review:

In order to address your review request, I have considered:

- Your FOI Request

-The availability of information at the Council

Findings:

Your FOI was logged by the Information Officer on 18th March 2019 but backdated to 15th March when it was received. The delay to log your request was due to the request arriving late on a Friday.

The request was forwarded to Community Services. The group manager for that team made enquiries to our legal team as the request was complex. Following this the group manager was on leave and therefore did not respond to the FOI immediately.

The required fulfilment date for the FOI was 14th April 2019.

The FOI was issued to you on 13th May 2019.

Conclusion and decision

Your complaint in relation to your FOI has been upheld and we apologise for the delay you encountered between the dates of 14th April to 13th May 2019.

To avoid future delays, arrangements have been made to nominate an elected deputy of the service to have access to the FOI system to receive and action requests in the absence of the Manger.

I have provided direction to the Community Service department to ensure that contingency staff have access to the FOI system in order to receive and respond FOIs during staff absence.

 

UPDATE

A correspondent writes in to point out that the Neighbourhoods Scrutiny Committee examined customer service in 2017, and amongst other things made the following observations:

‘The Committee felt that staff would benefit from undertaking focussed customer care training and that customer care might be more strongly reflected the next time HR review corporate job descriptions or specifications. However, part of transforming customer service is to make all Council staff clearly aware that they are responsible for delivering excellent customer service in all aspects of their work and in their everyday contact with the public’

and

‘The Committee was told that in common with many local authorities, the Council lacks consistent information regarding customer service performance across the organisation. The Committee was informed that there is an apparent discrepancy in addressing queries and complaints across the Council. Based on anecdotal evidence, the quality, promptness and type of response to queries varies from each service area and those which are ignored are often escalated to complaints’.

The Commmittee made eight recommendations, and these subsequently went to Cabinet.

Readers can decide for themselves whether, in the light of this post, the situation has been rectified.

Related Posts

LBWF and the Freedom of Information Act: some troubling new findings

LBWF, Prevent, and the Freedom of Information Act: censorship in action?

LBWF and the Freedom of Information Act: dumb insolence reigns?

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