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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Just the Facts: Investigating & Addressing Service Complaints

Taken from Public Safety Communication Magazine, September 2009
Written by Bob Smith, Director of Strategic Development for APCO International.

If you ask any comm center director or supervisor in the country, you'll find that one of the most difficult parts of the job is fielding complaints about their agency's staff or level of service. Whether those complaints come from the public or from field agencies, complaints are a common occurrence. Some are valid, and some are not. Either way, they all warrant an investigation and follow-up.

Every agency should have a formal complaint investigation process that includes how complaints are received, how they are investigated and what is done with the findings. Below, some tips for developing (or updating) a formal complaint process:

Step 1: Document it. The policy should require the complainant to complete a form or submit some type of documentation to kick off the investigation. Investigative complaints made only verbally should be avoided to prevent a sense of rumor-chasing within the agency, which could negatively impact morale. If someone has a formal complaint and feels that an issue needs official attention, then a requirement to submit documentation won't influence their decision to request action.

The policy should also address how someone interested in filing a complaint can obtain access to this paperwork and how and where the filing party should submit the documentation. Submission should follow a formal, recognized and documented process that ensures the request for investigation is routed to the appropriate person within the agency and does not languish in someone's in-box.

Step 2: Designate a point person. Who should receive the complaint? Agencies should have a formal chain of investigation that determines who investigates complaints. This should include general complaints received by the agency and any internal complaints regarding operations from within the agency. The policy should also address an escalation process and a delineated process for investigating complaints filed on personnel at every level of the organization.

Who investigates complaints filed on telecommunicators? Shift supervisors, maybe. Who investigates complaints filed on shift supervisors? Deputy directors, maybe. Who investigates complaints filed on deputy directors? And so on. Every level of personnel in the organization could potentially be involed in an incident that calls for some level of complaint investigation. An agency's policies and procedures should address this.

Step 3: Collect Information. Investigators should gather as much information as possible when investigating complaints. That includes CAD records, radio logs, audio recordings, witness statements and, most importantly, a statement from the employee or employees involved in the incident being investigated. Investigators should allow the employee to relay events as they saw them and describe how the incident developed, including why and how they were involved. As this questioning session takes place, it's important to remember that this is not the time to chastise or praise an employee for their actions or inactions. There is an appropriate time and place for that when all the details are known and all information has been evaluated. At this point in the investigation the point is to listen objectively and record information as it is received.

Step 4: Act. Which brings us to the final component of the investigation: what to do with the findings. An agency's policy for complaint investigation should ultimately have a component for releasing the findings, if appropriate, after the investigation. Whether the information is released only internally or delivered to the filing party should be spelled out, including who within the organization perfoms that follow up.

This section should include how findings are addressed withing the organization. Comm center staff will usually be aware of an ongoing investigation, especially in smaller agencies. For this reason, it's important that some type of outcome - whether positive or negative - be made known to them. If the investigation finds fault or error, then the agency should use the opportunity to emphasize and reinforce the relevant policies or procedures. This should not include individual names or information because this will negatively impact morale. It would be more appropriate to use the opportunity as a team learning experience.

On the other hand, finding that are positive or uncover evidence that someone has gone above and beyond the call of duty are an excellent opportunity to praise the individual and agency staff alike. Remember: Criticize in private, but praise in public.

Above all else, the investigation should conform to the agency's policies and procedures and strictly adhere to the progressive discipline process. Further, the process should ensure that employees at all levels are confident that complaints are competently processed regardless of incident type, complaining party and/or outcomes.

The bottom line: A formal, objective process for the receipt, processing, investigation and follow up of complaints is imperative to agency customer service levels and successful operations. Investigations of this type will help locate any deficiencies within the agency and spotlight instances of exceptional performance. A documented process for complaint investigation will enhance an agency's overall perception in the community it serves.

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