Vexatious complaints

Cedric, a founding member of the Headhunter Gang, used the Council complaint system all the time. It gave him complete anonymity and police protection. The Council did all the work and the ratepayers paid the bills. All Cedric had to do was laugh.



Reducing the cost of negative energy.

 A significant rate reduction could be made, suggests Tony Watkins, if every citizen was only allowed to make one complaint each year to a local authority.

Some people complain all the time about almost everything. Other people never complain, even when they have every reason to do so. Rather strangely we seem to accept that our community is always going to be like this. Our society has few mechanisms in place to bring about a necessary change in behaviour. Instead we have institutionalised processes which favour “complainers” over “non-complainers”.

Some balance could be restored if every citizen was only allowed to make one complaint each year to a local authority. That would still allow a city like Auckland to entertain around a million complaints each year, which should be enough to accommodate the most pressing concerns of the populace.

At first glance allowing only one complaint a year might seem to be rather draconian. Not so. Most people never complain so their allocation would be available for others to enjoy. Any “complaining” person would only need to ask a “non-complaining” person for permission to use their allocation.

In practice this would mercifully give every citizen only one complaint each year where they could hide their identity from shame and ridicule. When using someone else’s allocation complaints would move into the public arena. At the moment name suppression is automatically granted to “complainers”, but not to “non-complainers”. Even under the Official Information Act a Council will not reveal the name of a person who has lodged a complaint. This is one reason why the existing system is used by many simply to harass other people over issues which too often have nothing to do with the complaint. One unsubstantiated phone call is enough to initiate a significant expenditure of ratepayer money. Someone else does all the work and takes all the knocks. The many people who never complain pay for a few “complainers” to have fun.

With only one chance to complain people would need of course to weigh up carefully the possibility of using up their allocation on some minor issue, while there was the possibility that there might be some other major issue lurking just around the corner. Some people who normally complain all the time might even reach the end of the year without ever having used up their allocation, as they waited nervously for a big one which never came.

It seems odd that local government has institutionalised a phenomenon which would be better either ignored or dealt with in some more creative way.

The people who do not complain just solve life’s problems as they come along. They are busy forging ahead making life better for themselves as well as the rest of the world. They are cheerful as they go about helping others. In contrast the people who complain all the time look for someone who will listen to their tale of misery. Councils do so. Bored Council staff enjoy entering any fray to brighten up their day, normally without bothering to find out what it is really all about. Public bodies feed on private aggression.

We all have some friends or neighbours whom we know to just ignore when they begin complaining. Solving one problem for them just sends them off to look for another. They have a pathological commitment to unhappiness, and remain blissfully unaware that others do not share their malaise. A wise person does not get drawn into their complex web of negative energy.

It is not always easy. A “complainer” can set about gathering other signatures to make it seem that they have widespread support. Courteous neighbours do not like to refuse them, so they sign up to something they would normally never agree to. It is easier to sign than to get drawn into an issue you are too busy to deal with.

Transferring complaints to the Council does not solve anything. Councils are not actually structured to solve problems, and they do not even employ problem-solvers. Council staff are known for never being friendly, and they never smile. Because they focus on power, authority, and enforcement rather than mediation they create winners and losers. Anger, resentment, alienation and misunderstanding do not lead to a liveable city.

In peaceful cities Councils would acknowledge that they are themselves a problem, not a solution. Violence in our cities begins with the institutionalised violence of our management structures.

Having to explain complaints to a tolerant person not concerned with authority and enforcement can make them look faintly ridiculous. Needing to go to a “non-complainer” to ask for their allocation could be sobering for those who focus only on themselves. Any selfish person forced to pause for a moment to look at the rest of the world would realise just how lucky they are.

With only a million complaints in a year we could be well on the way to making Auckland a liveable city. The saving in rates would be just a bonus.

Tony Watkins is an architect and urban designer with a particular interest in mediation.