Friday, July 12, 2024

Municipality Hopes New Web Form Will Improve Response Times to Resident Queries

You have likely heard someone express that the Municipality is slow to respond to an inquiry from a resident, if they respond at all. Perhaps you have experienced a longer than expected wait for a response from the Municipality yourself.

In an era of immediate communication from email to apps, many have come to expect instant responses, and when they don’t receive the speed of service that they expect, people can often turn to social media to share their experience.

Meaford resident Gavin Hunter recently expressed his frustrations on social media with what he considered to be slow response times from the municipality.

In the spring of last year, Hunter contacted the municipality with concerns about surveillance cameras that had been installed at the library. He first visited the municipal office in person seeking information, but was told to use the online complaint process.

My first contact with the municipality was done in person,” Hunter told The Independent. “I was concerned about the lack of surveillance camera signage as per law. During this interaction, I ask if my questions could be answered and if not, could I make an appointment to speak to the proper employee. I was given no answer, no appointment date, and was advised to use the online complaint process. I was literally there to make an informal complaint in person. I found this odd, the civic law is clear on surveillance cameras. I actually thought it was a oversight and they would get right on it. I wasn’t trying to accuse anyone, I thought the municipality would simply want to follow the law. I went home thinking that there would be signs up the day after the powers that be realized the municipality itself was breaking laws.”

After hearing no response to his in-person inquiry, Hunter began emailing the municipality, and responses were often days or weeks away, raising his frustration. A May 9 email to the municipality did not receive a reply until nearly two weeks later, and Hunter said that follow-up responses were also days in the making.

By the end of July, Hunter’s frustrations were growing, and he sent another email to the municipality on July 29.

I have not yet received the receipt pertaining to my formal complaint as per the municipal process. We are on the third business day. The process claims two for receipt. Is there something you need help with to expedite this issue?” he wrote in frustration on July 29 of last year.

Hunter’s experience is not the norm, says the municipality, but it is also not necessarily uncommon. They concede that they have work to do in order to improve response times to resident inquiries.

At present, we don’t have any defined standards for responding to resident inquiries, but generally aim to get back to people as soon as possible. Unfortunately, we don’t have the capabilities at the moment to produce data on queries and responses,” Municipal Clerk Matt Smith told The Independent when asked about Hunter’s experience. “I do think it’s important to distinguish between the time for an initial response and the time to resolve an issue, particularly when it is something complex.”

In recent years the Municipality has encouraged residents to use the ‘Report a Concern’ feature on the municipal website (meaford.ca), a program which earned the municipality a national award from the Canadian Association of Municipal Administrators (CAMA) in 2021, however Smith advised that, in their efforts to improve upon that program, they have recently made changes.

One recommendation that I would make is for residents to submit their questions and issues via our webform at www.meaford.ca/contactus rather than via e-mail, as that will automatically be assigned to the right person for the subject matter. That URL is a new one as of this afternoon (February 20), replacing the previous www.meaford.ca/reportaconcern,” Smith advised The Independent last month.

Smith also encouraged residents who have had negative experiences when seeking responses from the municipality to share those experiences by submitting a formal complaint.

“We are always trying to do better with our customer service, and are planning to develop a Customer Service Strategy and associated standards in 2023, which would go to Council for approval. If residents don’t believe that we are meeting the standards we should be, we do have a Formal Complaints policy and process – more details are available at https://www.meaford.ca/en/our-government/formal-complaints.aspx,” Smith advised. “Residents who don’t get the service they think is appropriate can use our Formal Complaint process, where the CAO conducts an investigation into the complaint. The public is also always able to submit a complaint to the Ontario Ombudsman if they believe the situation merits it, although the Ombudsman’s Office will normally ask if the complainant has gone through the Municipality’s Formal Complaint process.”

With regard to Hunter’s experience with his complaint about video surveillance signage, Smith told The Independent that some issues take longer than others to resolve.

For Mr. Hunter, there was an issue raised regarding the Library sometime in 2022. I wasn’t aware of that until we received correspondence from the Information and Privacy Commissioner in November,” Smith told The Independent. “That letter said that the complaint in question didn’t meet their requirements for investigation, but suggested the Municipality review the complaint and update some of our video surveillance policies. Mr. Hunter contacted me directly in December after the Council orientation presentation on customer service, which I responded to within 24 hours. Since then, I have been working on updating our signage, reviewing the appropriateness of the cameras at the Library, and drafting an updated policy that will go to both the Library Board and Council when complete. Mr. Hunter asked for an update on January 18th, which I did not reply to promptly enough. He followed up the next week, and I responded with a detailed message about the steps we’re taking on February 2.”

Smith conceded that there is room for improvement.

“Without wanting to sound defensive, issues like that do take more time than some would imagine due to the sheer number of things that I, or most of my colleagues, are dealing with at once. In general, we are all trying our best, but other corporate priorities do sometimes get in the way,” Smith explained.

If you have a question, concern, or complaint to submit to the municipality, Smith advises that the fastest route to a reply can be found by visiting the municipal website, clicking on the ‘Contact Us’ link at the top of the page, and completing the web form.

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