OEH policy and approach for managing external complaints and allegations

  1. Introduction
  2. OEH policy
  3. Distinguishing complaints and allegations
  4. Managing complaints and allegations
  5. Anonymous allegations
  6. Vexatious complainants
  7. Making a complaint or allegation to OEH
  8. Complaints to external agencies
  9. Further information

1. Introduction

Like all other public agencies, the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) from time to time receives complaints and allegations about the decisions and actions of members of staff. OEH is committed to ensuring that these complaints and allegations are promptly and properly dealt with.

Accordingly, OEH has established systems for assessing and responding to complaints and allegations. These systems are designed to provide for an objective assessment of the issues raised, be fair to all the parties involved, and be appropriate for different situations.

OEH's approach to managing complaints and allegations is based on the standards of customer service, accountability and administrative behaviour set out in guidelines produced by the NSW Ombudsman. These guidelines stress that good complaint handling is not only good client and customer service but is also an important source of management information.

2. OEH policy

People who make complaints or allegations are entitled to a review of the issues they raise and a considered response.

Each complaint or allegation will be assessed or investigated and resolved as quickly as reasonably possible.

When errors or systemic problems are identified, OEH will work to rectify them. When allegations of improper or corrupt behaviour are found to be true, appropriate action will be taken in accordance with the established Premier's Department guidelines.

3. Distinguishing complaints and allegations

OEH makes a distinction between complaints and allegations and has established different processes for dealing with each category. OEH recognises, however, that in practice the distinction may not always be clear-cut and has therefore taken steps to ensure managers have advice and assistance to help them in making this distinction.

3.1 Complaints

OEH defines complaints as expressions of dissatisfaction with its service delivery and any associated administrative matters such as decisions, procedures and fees/charges, where the complainant requests or demands that OEH reconsider a decision or take some form of remedial action. (Where people express dissatisfaction with OEH but do not expect further action to be taken, their views are noted but are not treated as 'complaints' under the agency's complaints handling system).

Complaints may concern fairly straightforward issues. They include claims of incorrect advice and expressions of dissatisfaction with delays or with the adequacy of OEH’s regulatory or conservation actions. They do not include complaints about Government policy nor claims that OEH staff have acted improperly, abused their powers, or acted corruptly. (These latter claims fall into the 'allegations' category).

Some complaints are capable of being resolved fairly quickly without the need for in-depth consideration and assessment or detailed reporting. Others will require more detailed work to be done. In either case OEH takes seriously the process for looking into and resolving them.

Complaints can be about:

Decisions

  • The merits of a decision - whether it is correct or not (but not questioning Government policy).
  • The exercise of discretion - whether unfair, unreasonable, inequitable or inappropriate matters were taken into account.
  • The appropriateness of OEH's response in dealing with an environmental or conservation issue - whether it was inadequate or incorrect.

Failure to act

  • Not taking action or otherwise responding to a request for OEH to exercise its discretionary or obligatory powers in regard to a pollution incident or conservation issue.
  • Unreasonable delays in processing licences and other approval applications.
  • Failure to provide information when requested to do so.

Service delivery systems

  • The administrative systems or compliance/enforcement procedures are too onerous, officious or otherwise inappropriate.

Communication problems

  • Correspondence was officious, ambiguous, bureaucratic, incomprehensible or otherwise unhelpful.
  • Failure or unreasonable delays in responding to correspondence, emails, phone messages or other approaches.

Incorrect or misleading advice

  • Incorrect, misleading or incomplete information was provided in response to a request.
  • Incorrect, misleading or incomplete information was contained in OEH publications or on the website.

Behaviour

  • An officer was abrupt, rude, unsympathetic or aggressive, in person, on the phone, or in an email or other written correspondence to a member of the public. (However, if the alleged behaviour was significantly inappropriate, the matter may be investigated as an allegation).

3.2 Allegations

Allegations concern probity issues or other matters that have the potential to seriously compromise OEH's public reputation.In general, allegations are more serious than complaints: they allege some form of misconduct, including allegations of corrupt conduct. Sections 8 and 9 of the Independent Commission Against Corruption Act 1988 provide a detailed definition of what constitutes 'corrupt conduct'.

Examples of allegations include:

  • abuse of power, e.g. an officer has shown bias, behaved improperly or misused their authority when dealing with an external issue or with external clients
  • theft or other misuse of OEH resources
  • corrupt behaviour, e.g. taking or offering bribes, dishonestly using influence, blackmail, fraud
  • decisions influenced by improper considerations
  • undeclared conflicts of interests
  • serious and substantial waste, resulting in significant loss or waste of public funds or resources
  • public behaviour detrimental to OEH's reputation, e.g. public drunkenness while in uniform, or reckless driving in a OEH vehicle.

3.3 Exclusions

Complaints and allegations do not include:

  • a request for services or information
  • dissatisfaction and dispute about decisions for which there is an established or formal right of review or reconsideration, e.g. a statutory right of review such as the right of appeal to the Administrative Decisions Tribunal in relation to Government Information Public Access (GIPA) decisions
  • dissatisfaction and dispute about the substance of Government policy or about OEH's policies and legislative powers for meeting its environment protection or conservation roles.

4. Managing complaints and allegations

The objective of complaint handling is to resolve issues and problems that are raised by the public, clients or stakeholders. By contrast, when responding to allegations OEH is seeking to determine if any wrongdoing has occurred. If an impartial fact finding investigation reveals that it has not, the reputation of the agency and its staff is restored. If wrongdoing has occurred, OEH's policy is to take appropriate action against those responsible, to maintain and protect our reputation as an ethical organisation.

Flowchart: Managing complaints and allegations

4.1 Managing complaints

The purpose of complaints handling is to resolve the matter, rather than to apportion blame.OEH's approach is to establish the facts and put in place any measures necessary to resolve the problem, including dealing with any underlying causes of complaints.

This approach allows complaints to be handled speedily without the need for formal investigations. However, if in the course of handling a complaint, information is obtained that suggests that a OEH staff member may have acted improperly or corruptly, the matter will be formally investigated:

  • in accordance with OEH's internal investigation guidelines if there is alleged corrupt conduct
  • in accordance with Premier's Department disciplinary guidelines if there is alleged misconduct, which may or may not be related to alleged corrupt conduct.

4.2 Managing allegations

As a general principle, OEH expects all allegations to be investigated, although there may be some circumstances where investigation is not appropriate or needs to be delayed to enable some other overlapping process to be finalised.

OEH does receive allegations which are based on misunderstandings, or made for improper or tactical purposes, such as to obtain a favourable decision or treatment from OEH or to delay or prevent regulatory action or prosecution. In particular, officers in regulatory roles often canbe subject to complaints or allegations. Accordingly, the investigation procedures have proper safeguards to protect the interests of staff who are wrongly accused of improper or corrupt conduct, including free access to OEH's Employee Assistance Program for staff and procedures to maintain confidentiality.

However, if an investigation concludes that staff have acted contrary to the principles of OEH's Code of Ethical Conduct and disciplinary action is recommended, then such recommendations will be implemented in consultation with OEH's Human Resources Branch.

5. Anonymous allegations

Anonymous complaints and allegations are more difficult to investigate, because the complainant cannot be contacted to provide more information about the allegations made. In addition, any consideration of the issues raised or investigation conclusions cannot be reported back to the complainant.

However, OEH does treat anonymous complaints and allegations seriously. The fact that they are anonymous does not make complaints or allegations untrue. The appropriate response to anonymous complaints and allegations has to be determined based on the nature and significance of the information provided. Where the matter raised is serious and sufficient information has been provided to make it feasible, OEH will undertake an investigation.

6. Vexatious complainants

Occasionally complainants refuse to accept OEH's assessments and conclusions regarding their complaints or allegations and may pursue a strategy of frequently lodging complaints about the same issues with various OEH officers orother agencies. This behaviour may constitute harassment andhas the potential to inappropriately distract OEH from its service delivery priorities.People who take this course of action may be considered to be vexatious complainants.

The decision to treat a complainant as 'vexatious' is not made lightly. It is taken only if OEH is confident that all the issues raised in the complaint or allegation have been properly addressed and full assessments and conclusions reported to the complainant.In such cases OEH may decide to no longer respond to issues that have already been dealt with. Where this is the case, a letter signed by the Chief Executive will be sent to the complainant advising that OEH will no longer respond to matters already considered and responded to.

However, it is important to note that if a vexatious complainant raises new issues which have not previously been dealt with, then OEH will consider and respond to those new issues.

7. Making a complaint or allegation to OEH

7.1 How to make a complaint or allegation

OEH will deal with any complaint or allegation in accord with our established procedures, regardless of how that complaint or allegation is received. However, we can most effectively deal with these matters if complaints or allegations are made:

  • in writing where possible, as this helps ensure that everyone has the same understanding of the problem and that no aspect of the complaint is overlooked. We understand, however, that not everyone is able or comfortable to make their complaint in writing. Verbal complaints and allegations will still be taken seriously and properly dealt with.
  • directly to OEH (at least in the first instance) so that we know about and can deal with the problem quickly
  • by providing a name and contact details so that if we need to get further information to help resolve the problem, we can do so.

If you know their contact details, it is best to write to or telephone the section of OEH you wish to complain about. You can also visit, write to or telephone your local OEH office, ring our Information Centre or write to the Chief Executive at our head office. The contact details for all OEH offices are listed under About Us/Contact Us.

If you wish to make an allegation of some form of serious misconduct, it is helpful if you write direct to the Chief Executive or to the Director Corporate Governance, marking your letter 'confidential'. Alternatively, you can contact OEH's Director Corporate Governance or the Program Leader Probity and Risk Management.

7.2 What to expect from OEH

OEH will deal with any complaint or allegation as quickly as possible. Complaints will be managed by the supervisor or manager of the area about which the complaint has been made, with oversight by a more senior manager. Investigation of allegations will be managed by a senior manager who is not closely involved with the area/s to which the allegations apply, and where appropriate undertaken by an external investigator.

In the case of a complaint, OEH will try to resolve the matter within 21 days of receiving it. If this is not possible, OEH will contact you to advise of the reason for the delay and when we expect to be able to report back to you. Once a complaint has been dealt with, OEH will contact you to let you know what we have done, or are doing in relation to your complaint.

Investigation of an allegation may take longer, particularly if the matter is complex. OEH will acknowledge receipt of an allegation, and if possible advise of the anticipated time until the matter will be resolved. Once the investigation is complete, and OEH has decided how it will respond to the investigation findings and recommendations, you will be advised of the outcome.

In either case we may contact you for further information or to clarify some points to help us resolve the issue.

7.3 What to do if you are unhappy with OEH's response

If you are dissatisfied with OEH's response to a matter which has been dealt with at a local level, you can write to the Chief Executive to request a review. In all cases, you can contact an appropriate external agency.

8. Complaints to external agencies

Members of the public may complain about the performance or behaviour of OEH or of individual OEH officers to the NSW Ombudsman, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) or other agencies such as the Office of the Privacy Commissioner .

The Ombudsman or ICAC may determine that the complaint or allegation is of such importance or sensitivity as to warrant their independent investigation and public report, and they may conduct those investigations themselves. In most cases, however, complaints are forwarded to OEH for review and report back.

Other complaint handling agencies also usually refer complaints back to OEH for us to review and report back to them on what we have done, or propose to do.

9. Further information

For further information, please contact OEH's Director Corporate Governance or the Program Leader Probity and Risk Management.

Page last updated: 21 June 2011