Years ago in Baltimore, a ward leader calls City Hall to say he has someone who needs a job.

"What can he do?" the mayor asks.

"Nothing," says the leader.

"Good," says the mayor. "We won't have to train him."

 

From the Baltimore Sun, February 13, 2005 by C. Fraser Smith


How to complain

Most visitors to this website have had to complain to public bodies of one kind or another. If the experiences were frustrating, they may also have complained, or are contemplating complaining, to someone else, perhaps their local councillor or the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO). Here we try to offer some general advice.

Because the experience can be truly horrendous, associated perhaps with loss of home, health or career, it is important to acknowledge first that it can also be positive, with problems promptly sorted by caring officials. So do not be put off.

The first rule is to make sure that you are complaining to the right person, with the power to act. The SPSO receives many complaints that it has no power to handle. Thus they must be about service failure and ‘maladministration’ (defined on their website) and they must first have been considered by the Public Service body in question. So be sure to check with the SPSO or the SPSO website at the start, to save both your time and theirs. In other contexts your constituency MSPs may be able to help, but the Scottish Parliament has no power to consider individual cases.

The second rule is to keep a dated record of everything written and said. Keep all letters and e-mails, including copies of your own.

The third rule is to give some thought to psychology. A very effective way to get nowhere is to be abusive, because the natural response to attack is to become uncooperative and to ‘put up the shutters’. This does not just apply to the person whom you think has wronged you, but also to any third parties whose assistance you might wish to enlist. People are more likely to help, or be persuaded by, someone who gives the impression of being polite and pleasant. If you are not yourself persuaded by this advice, you could read up on the results of scientific research by social psychologists or, more simply, try a little introspection: think about how you might react to unpleasantness, whether you are guilty or innocent.

Alternatively, you might try imagining yourself to be a council official, for example, and a nice person (as indeed you are, of course) who is accused of making some administrative mistake. You wish to put things right, but you have 103 e-mails to deal with. The complainant rants abusively at length, then again and again. Soon you cannot bear even to think about the complainant any more. You would rather sort out that problem for that nice Mrs Bucket. The complainant might feel better for having let off steam, but will his or her problem be solved?

Of course, there are incompetent and corrupt officials too, but abusing them does not help either.

Are we suggesting that angry complainants should be two-faced? ‘Restrained and objective’ is a better description. Act in a way that may achieve your goal – and vent your anger on some inanimate object.

In regard to officials and their actions there is not always a clear distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Often the problem is one of ‘unconscious incompetence’, a blind spot for one’s faults like that of an enthusiastic but tone-deaf singer. This could understandably apply to organizations like the SPSO for which the output is no adequate external monitoring.

So far this has been about specific complaints that concern one personally, but members of Accountability Scotland have more general aims – ‘changing the system’ to put it loosely. Here similar considerations apply. It is counterproductive to lambast the very MSPs or civil servants whose help you ultimately need. It is pointless to harry MSPs or parliamentary bodies hoping that they will take some action that is actually outwith their power. Nor can they be expected to become fired up by every worthy issue; not every issue has its ‘Millie Dowler moment’. We must play by Parliament’s rules when only Parliament can deliver our goals. We must appear to be well-informed and constructive.

As a final hint, it sometimes helps to ask a question in a letter or e-mail as this demands a response.

There was a website [www.howtocomplain.com] that gave general advice on complaining, e.g. to councils and businesses, and also gives specific guidance – to particular British local councils, for example. There was also guidance on your rights. Unfortunately it is no longer available. Just click the link to google the words "How to Complain".


You may download a complaints form from the Public Standards Commissioner for Scotland