Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 10 Nov 2020
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr B complains at the Council’s response to enquiries he made about it replacing a collapsed road sign. We uphold the complaint finding failings in the information given to Mr B by the Council through its ‘Fix My Street’ online reporting tool. It was also at fault for its complaint responses. This caused Mr B injustice as he experienced unnecessary time, trouble and frustration. The Council accepts these findings. At the end of this statement we set out the steps it has taken to learn lessons from this complaint and what action it has agreed to remedy Mr B’s injustice.
- I have called the complainant ‘Mr B’. He complains the Council:
- took over 12 months to replace a street sign near his house that advises motorists the street he lives on is a no through road;
- gave him confusing and wrong advice when he enquired about its replacement;
- failed to provide a satisfactory explanation for either the delay or wrong advice when he complained.
- Mr B says because of the above, he and other residents on his street suffered inconvenience from traffic reversing and turning as drivers did not know it was a no through road. He also says he has been put to unnecessary time and trouble in chasing up a replacement sign and in seeking explanation for what went wrong.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
- If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- Before issuing this decision statement I considered:
- Mr B’s complaint to the Ombudsman and supporting information he provided. This included Mr B’s reports to the Council about the road sign saved on its ‘Fix my Street’ online reporting tool. It also included the Council’s reply to Mr B’s complaint and an information request. Mr B also provided information to this office via a telephone call.
- Information provided to me by the Council in reply to my written enquiries.
- Comments made by Mr B and the Council in response to a draft decision statement where I set out my provisional findings.
What I found
Chronology of events
- Mr B lives on a narrow residential street in the Council’s area near a busy high street. Mr B reports the street used for parking by visitors to the area. There is a junction with another road approximately halfway up the street which is near to Mr B’s home. Beyond that junction the street is a no through road. Until November 2018 a road sign advised motorists of this.
- In November 2018 Mr B reported to the Council the no through road sign had collapsed. He did so using the Council’s service called ‘Fix My Street’. The Council describes this as an ‘online street improvements tool’ for recording road safety concerns and requests for street improvements. The tool enables residents to report various highway matters including problems with street signs.
- Between Mr B’s initial report and his second contact with the Council in early January 2019 the Council’s contractor removed the collapsed sign. Mr B made his second contact to enquire about a replacement sign. He said motorists using the street did not realise it was a no through road.
- In March 2019 the Fix My Street webpage updated to show the issue “fixed”. Mr B used the tool to tell the Council this was not the case. The sign still needed replacement. In April 2019 the webpage updated to say “job raised”.
- In August 2019 Mr B used Fix My Street for the fourth time. He reported the sign still needed replacing. He said vehicles continued to drive up the street in error. At the end of that month the webpage updated to say, “your issue has been passed to our contractors to rectify”. Then in mid-September 2019 the status of Mr B’s report changed to “fixed” again with the comment “your enquiry has been closed”.
- At this point Mr B used Fix My Street for a fifth time, to open another report saying the sign still needed replacement. He set out a brief chronology of his contacts with the Council since November 2018 explaining what had happened as I have described above. In early October 2019 the Council updated the webpage to say it had reallocated Mr B’s report “to the relevant officer or team for action” who would “update you on progress”.
- At the end of the month Mr B got in touch using Fix My Street again, saying he had heard nothing further. The Council says this was a few days after the officer responsible for street signs raised an order with the Council’s contractor to replace the sign.
- At the end of November 2019, the contractor replaced the road sign; just over a year following the collapse of the previous sign.
- By now Mr B had complained to the Council and made a request for information. The Council’s initial reply to Mr B’s complaint focused on its policy towards dealing with problems caused by on-street parking in the area where he lives. Mr B escalated his complaint saying this reply did not deal with the matters he had raised with the Council, which reflected the summary of his complaint I have provided in paragraph 1.
- The Council’s second reply to Mr B’s complaint followed in early December 2019. In this the Council confirmed it had now replaced the road sign and trusted this answered his enquiry. It did not comment on the time taken for replacement or Mr B’s unhappiness at the service he received through the ‘Fix My Street’ service.
- Mr B’s request for information asked specific questions about his experience. In response the Council told Mr B:
- The officer who dealt with relevant signage requests in November 2018 had left the Council. It did not have a complete record of the actions taken by the Officer in response to Mr B’s report. So, for example it could not explain why the Council did not alert its contractor to replace the sign until August 2019.
- That it prioritised reports for replacement signs. It considered the Officer had ‘likely’ assigned a low priority to replacing the sign on Mr B’s street. So in answer to the question why did the Council report the sign fixed in March 2019, the Council said: “the initial action of removal with the intent to fully replace at a later date” was “reasonable […] as a temporary measure”. The Council said it could not say why it had closed Mr B’s report in September 2019.
- In my investigation I also asked the Council for explanation for the events in this case. It told me that when it recorded the request for a replacement sign “fixed” in March 2019 this reflected the report going to its street lighting team responsible “at the time” for replacing road signs. The Council says it has worked with the ‘Fix My Street’ developer to ensure this does not happen in future.
- In response to a draft decision setting out my proposed findings on this complaint the Council also said:
- since the events covered by this complaint it had “better integrated the way we respond to defective or missing signs”. The Council says it can now provide an audit trail for action taken on any reported defect as it has integrated this information into software it uses;
- it had improved its ability to follow up with its contractor where it found signs had not been replaced or fixed;
- that it agreed this complaint highlighted a need also to ensure better communications to those reporting missing signs; for example, letting them know timescales for replacement signs and giving them more information when updating the ‘Fix My Street’ site; it is ensuring staff now provide more information;
- it had undertaken significant recruitment to its team dealing with street sign requests and changed how it managed those requests.
- I have assumed that when the Council set up the ‘Fix My Street’ tool it did so as it foresaw benefits for both those reporting issues and for its officers. For the citizen reporting an incident it promises transparency in providing updates on how the Council responds to individual reports. It also keeps reports in the public domain so one person can see if another has made a report about the same issue. For the Council it removes the potential for duplicate reports and frees officer time responding to individual enquiries.
- However, I find this complaint highlighted flaws in the reporting tool. First, it is not disputed Fix My Street twice updated to show the replacement street sign requested by Mr B ‘fixed’, in March and September 2019, when it was not. This was a fault.
- If the Council is to avoid a repeat then it should understand why this is. But it cannot offer a satisfactory explanation in this case as there is no adequate audit trail. I find it surprising the Council allowed officers to record jobs as fixed or closed without any need to record why this was. Whether the Council includes information on the ‘Fix My Street’ service or holds it elsewhere it surely wants to monitor the progress of requests for matters such as replacement street-signs. For how else will it know how many requests it receives, how long they take to deal with, how much they cost to replace and so on. Information which presumably feeds into decisions on overall staffing and budget resources.
- I also note the Fix My Street record inaccurate or incomplete in other ways. If it is the case that its officer raised a job to replace the sign in April 2019 why did the Council have to refer to contractors again in August and then a third time in October 2019? Does the problem here lie with the report on Fix My Street being wrong or did the contractor not act in response to the Council’s requests? And why did the October 2019 referral not appear on the Fix My Street report at the time? This confusing record justifies a further finding of fault.
- I consider a third flaw with the ‘Fix My Street’ tool is that even when it updated, the site provided only limited information to Mr B. I have no reason to question the Council’s judgment that the sign Mr B reported missing was a low priority for replacement. But I do not see why this should not have been clear to him from the time he made his report. In other places the tool updated with short phrases like ‘job raised’ or ‘reallocated’ and no explanation of what this meant.
- I see no reason why the updates provided by the Council on ‘Fix My Street’ could not have offered more information. It could have explained what it meant when ‘raised a job’ or set out the priority given to replacement. For example, saying we hope to fix this in three or six months. As I said above, I presume the Council uses ‘Fix My Street’ as it should provide transparency and convenience for those reporting concerns. But these benefits are lost if the Council only provides the most cursory or opaque of updates. I also find fault therefore in Fix My Street giving Mr B only limited information throughout the duration of his contacts using that reporting tool.
- I welcome the assurances received during this investigation, summarised in paragraphs 17 and 18, on steps taken by the Council to improve the ‘Fix My Street’ service. I am satisfied it has introduced a better audit trail to monitor requests for missing signs. It has also improved liaison with its contractors and it accepts an ongoing need to improve communications with citizens using the ‘Fix My Street’ tool. While I was initially minded to find the Council needed to make procedural improvements to this service, I am satisfied these are no longer needed.
- Although I note this case also highlights some poor complaint handling practice. The Council had two opportunities to reply to Mr B’s complaint before we began our investigation. But neither response answered his complaint. Neither dealt with Mr B’s concerns about the time taken and confusing responses to his request that it replace a missing road sign. I recognise the Council did provide a better reply to Mr B’s information request, but this does not excuse the failure to answer his complaint properly. This justifies a further finding of fault.
- In summary therefore:
- I do not find fault in the time taken to replace the road sign but I do fault the Council for not clearly explaining the priority it would give to the job.
- I also fault the Council for the confusing and wrong information provided to Mr B via its ‘Fix My Street’ reporting tool. This included twice recording the job as fixed when it was not and a confusing audit trail implying it had to ask its contractors three times to replace the sign before that happened.
- I also fault the Council for its poor complaint handling. Its replies did not address the substance of Mr B’s complaint.
- This has caused injustice to Mr B. He experienced unnecessary time, trouble and frustration in following up a routine enquiry about a missing road sign. Mr B then experienced more unnecessary time, trouble and frustration when he made a complaint trying to understand why this was.
- The Council accepts these findings. To remedy Mr B’s injustice it has agreed that withing 20 working days of this decision it will:
- provide an apology accepting the findings of this investigation; and
- pay Mr B £100 in recognition of his time and trouble.
- For reasons set out above I uphold this complaint finding fault by the Council causing injustice to Mr B. The Council has agreed to take action that I consider will remedy Mr B’s injustice. Consequently, I can now complete my investigation satisfied with its response.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman