Abandoned sweeper trolley, Camden

Camden Council Complaints

How to make sure a complaint against Camden Council is properly investigated. Don’t follow the procedures they set out – read about how to actually make a difference.


Introduction

Camden Council provide official methods for making complaints, but they are designed to delay, dither, and eventually destroy your will to live. Without knowledge of how to make an effective complaint, it is almost certain that you will never hear back from Camden’s usual complaint procedure – at least not in any meaningful way.

While there is no hard and fast way to have a complaint resolved every time, the following approaches will certainly have more of an effect than using Camden’s own prescribed complaints procedure, which is almost entirely defunct.


Camden Council Complaints Summary

  • Try to resolve your complaint verbally with an officer before doing anything else.
  • Make sure to get a local ward councillor on your side.
  • Email the relevant director or head of service but never the Chief Executive.
  • Ensure that your complaint is formally lodged and that you get a reference.
  • Take the complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman if you are unhappy.

Key Pages and Contacts


Step-by-Step Guide

Step 0: Work out Your Motivation

Before making any complaint, it is worth asking yourself what you actually want to achieve.

A complaint is usually defined as an ‘expression of dissatisfaction’. Simply expressing this dissatisfaction is fine but unless you want some sort of concrete outcome, Camden will likely only write to tell you that you are ‘wrong’ or your concerns are ‘unfounded,’ just leading to more aggravation.

Camden’s officers are more likely to take an interest in your complaint if you’re willing to try and express what you want changed.


Step 1: Clarify the Complaint(s)

A list of small complaints about particular problems is far more effective than one large complaint about one general problem.

(Even if they turn out to be the same thing)

Think and clarify exactly what it is you are dissatisfied about – the more precise a complaint, the better the chance you will have of success.

It may be that you want to make a complaint about a general problem in Camden that you have experienced. Unfortunately no officer will be able to investigate ‘general’ complaints of this kind, but ‘particular’ complaints are easy to investigate.

To give an example, it may be the case that you are dissatisfied with the levels of street cleanliness in your neighbourhood. There may be a systemic problem where for some reason the streets are always dirty.

Rather than complain along the lines of ‘my whole neighbourhood is always filthy’ you should gather photos and detail exactly how a particular road is falling below an acceptable standard. Clarify exactly what it is causing the lack of cleanliness – old leaves, litter, or bin bags? Are bins overflowing, or do you need more bins? Is it people smoking and leaving fag-ends on the floor?

If you begin to deconstruct a general problem in this way and attack each thing individually, you are far more likely to have some success, exactly because Camden’s officers can think about how to address those individual concerns.

It is a rather bizarre phenomenon with Camden that if you tell a department they’re doing everything wrong they will shrug their shoulders, but if you give them a list of everything which they are doing wrong (which just so happens to be everything they are supposed to be doing) they will often eagerly get to work on resolving each individual issue.

You should also think of things from the point of view of someone receiving your complaint. If you make a general complaint about a service there is not much that an officer can do except say that they will try to improve everything – but they are not even particularly sure what you are dissatisfied with (and surely they can’t be doing everything wrong?). If an officer receives a precise list of things which need attention they can at least look into each individual issue. Often if the problems span multiple departments or offices each problem will be delegated to different officials. It is much more efficient to have things done this way than to make a general complaint.


Step 2: Find who to Contact

Making a successful complaint is about communicating in the right way to the right person at the right time.

Finding the right person is the important part.

If you make a formal complaint through the online form, in principle a complaints officer will find out which officer(s) to send it to and simply pass it on to them. A complaints officer generally acts as a middle man.

However the complaints officer doesn’t necessarily know who to send it to, and what’s more we have found that sometimes officers simply don’t bother to respond.

It is instead best to completely bypass the online form and find out exactly who to contact about your complaint.

The difficult part is working out who to complain to.

This is where ward councillors come in handy. Councillors (usually) have good knowledge of the structure of the council and can hopefully point you in the right direction. Unfortunately it is a case of asking the right councillor about the right thing. Some councillors are totally useless, so if you don’t receive back a helpful response within a few days just email another councillor.

Ward councillors can be found here, but don’t be afraid to email a councillor from another ward if they have a good reputation. Just don’t tell them where you’re from.

Once you have the name of someone, their email is simply:

firstname.lastname@camden.gov.uk


Step 3: Ask to Meet Informally or Talk on the Phone with an Officer

Officers are far more receptive to your concerns if you discuss them informally in person or on the phone. Sending faceless emails will likely make you seem a keyboard warrior.

The most effective way to resolve an issue is to meet with an officer in person to informally discuss the matter, or failing that, to call them on the phone.

It can often be useful to meet in an area and walk around if the problem is a localised one.

You will likely be surprised at how keen Camden officers can be to meet in person, even if it is only for five or ten minutes – it gives them an excuse to get out of the office, after all. The advantage of meeting in person is that in a more relaxed and informal setting, officers are much more likely to communicate openly and honestly about a problem and say what can and cannot be done. It is certainly the case that officers are afraid to let slip any detail by email in case it be used against them. This is the reason why written responses are often so bureaucratic and unhelpful.

Time and time again we see that individuals who have had a bad experience with a particular officer through email will come away much happier after a face-to-face meeting with them. Even the most helpful Camden officer appears extremely bureaucratic by email, due to Camden’s strange work culture.

In contacting the person found in Step 2, you should politely ask for a meeting with an officer to discuss the problems clarified in Step 1. If all has gone to plan, you should have been given an email of a senior member of staff who will pass your email down to a more junior officer.

This is useful, as a junior officer will both be ‘watched’ by their manager in how they deal with your (so far informal) complaint, but also junior officers tend to be more helpful than senior ones. Senior officers often have more of a public profile and are much more guarded about what they say and do, as they need to ‘represent’ Camden.

Officers will be keen to resolve the problem informally as it also means avoiding the burden of potentially processing a formal complaint.

Usually at this stage the need to make a complaint more or less disappears. The complainant and officer agree on a way forward and keep in touch to ensure that the issues are resolved.

However this is not always the case. Unfortunately a minority of officers can also be unhelpful in person, or often will agree to do some things but then later claim that they never did.


Step 4: Increase the Pressure Gradually

Hold off on making a formal complaint for as long as possible. The threat of a complaint is often more effective than actually making one.

Whichever officer was assigned to your informal complaint will almost certainly be the one dealing with a formal complaint if you eventually make one. Unfortunately if the particular officer that you’re dealing with is not helpful, you are stuck with that officer, and you need to find a way to make it work.

You should try to clarify with a councillor if you are dealing with the correct officer – sometimes complaints can fall on the border between two or even three departments, and departments can love to ping-pong complaints back and forth claiming it’s not their responsibility.

Getting a ward councillor to advocate for you is extremely helpful. Officers often feel that they can get away with ignoring resident emails, but they cannot ignore the email of a ward councillor. So make sure to get friendly with a ward councillor and keep them on side (if you can).

At this point, you may think that it is justified to throw in a formal complaint in order to ‘force’ the officer into doing whatever you want them to do. However this is completely ineffective with Camden. Camden’s formal complaint procedure is woeful and you will generally not achieve anything more except to have your officer receive your angry comments indirectly. Particularly if your officer is unhelpful, the officer will then typically rescind into sending bureaucratic responses and will do everything in their power to not do what you want. It has even been observed that officers simply completely ignore emails after receiving a formal complaint.

Of course Camden ‘should’ have a complaints procedure which holds officers accountable for their actions and ensures they deal with your complaint with some level of integrity. However the simple fact is that they just don’t, and to get things done you will have to approach things differently.

Typically also by making a complaint the whole department will close ranks and be much less helpful. Managers will more often protect their officers than properly investigate your complaint. Again, this perhaps ‘shouldn’t’ happen but the fact is that it does.

Instead, you need to find a way to motivate your officer into resolving your concerns.

Be persistent – but polite. Eventually when a lazy officer realises you aren’t going away they will recognise it is just easier to do whatever you’re asking so that you do go away. Make indirect enquiries – perhaps correspond with your councillors about it. Quite effective can be to contact the manager to discuss the matter with them. Camden does have quite a number of proactive and helpful employees and they can often nudge the more lazy officers into action. Remember to be patient – things in Camden can take much longer than expected. You certainly shouldn’t get annoyed if things haven’t changed over the course of a week or so – unless it is urgent.

Just ensure that you don’t state anything openly critical about an officer until you have no choice left. You want to make the officer feel rewarded for resolving your informal complaint, rather than as though they are forced into doing it for a ‘nasty resident’.

If things are really not going well, you can also try to involve another person in your informal complaint. This could be a friend or a councillor.

However admittedly if an officer is not being helpful a third party may not make a difference.


Step 5: File a Formal Complaint

Filing a formal complaint is a blunt tool that can have unintended consequences.

But sometimes there’s no choice left.

Hopefully you have not reached this stage, or if you have it is after some weeks of liaising with an officer.

However the good thing about following the previous five steps is that you now have a very specific complaint that you can make about the conduct of a particular officer. You can detail all the ways that you have tried to resolve a problem informally to no avail.

We will detail how best to lend force to your formal complaint.

Step 5a: Write a Formal Complaint to the Relevant Executive or Director

Making a formal complaint begins with an email to the relevant director – but NOT the chief executive.

Many think writing a complaint to the chief executive is the most impactful thing that can be done. Unfortunately this is not the case, exactly because so many people do it. Far more effective is to complain to the people just below the chief executive – the board of executive directors, and directors below them.

Don’t write the complaint in an email – write it in a formal letter format and address it to the relevant director or executive. Remember that emails are always firstname.lastname@camden.gov.uk. Be aware that Camden’s ‘top level structure’ often changes so it might be useful to search ‘Camden top level structure chart’ into Google and find the latest result.

You should also CC complaints@camden.gov.uk and specifically ask for it to be lodged as a formal complaint, and to be given a complaint reference number. Keep chasing this up, because Camden officers love to pretend that your complaint is being formally investigated when they haven’t even bothered to register it.

Detail everything that has happened, mentioning names and dates and events explicitly. Try to make the letter as formal and objective as possible.

The address should be as follows:

Director for __
The London Borough of Camden
5 Pancras Square
King's Cross
London
N1C 4AG

You should receive a response confirming receipt within a day or two, and a final response to your complaint within a month at most. If not, make sure to follow up politely.

Step 5b: Check up on your Complaint

Regularly checking on the progress of your complaint will ensure that it is not forgotten.

You should discuss the complaint with your councillors and check up regularly on the ‘progress’ of the complaint.

Remember to stay polite at all times. Although an officer may have been unhelpful, the people investigating the complaint probably had no idea about what was going on. It is fair to say that Camden employees do not enjoy dealing with complaints, so you have to make sure that they know you are not just another ‘angry resident’.

You can also use the old trick of asking for a meeting or phone call again to discuss the complaint with whoever is investigating it.

At this point the original officer will most likely be keen to just get whatever you wanted done, and we often find that during the investigation the officer will become a lot more helpful.

Eventually you will receive the outcome of the complaint, which is usually a formality.

For whatever reason, you may find that even at this point your complaint is not resolved.

Step 5c: Appeal and Eventually go to the LGO

As long as your complaint has been formally registered, you can keep appealing for further investigations if you are unhappy.

Camden’s complaints procedure has three tiers, with the final response coming from the Chief Executive.

However we find that usually Camden’s initial response to the complaint is just reiterated by the higher levels.

Once you receive a final response to your complaint, you can complain to the Local Government Ombudsman, an independent body that oversees local authorities.

Most often, this is the only way you can have a complaint properly investigated.


Related

Camden Council Takes 3 Years to Resolve Noise Complaint

How to Have a Noise Complaint Investigated at Camden Council

Camden Threatened with Legal Action and LGO Investigation


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