Tearfunds approach to feedback and complaints handling is part of a broader organisational commitment to accountability, which promotes information sharing, transparency, participation and learning with project participants. Feedback and complaints mechanisms are based on community preferences and cultural norms to ensure that they are accessible, safe and easy to use. All feedback is recorded, responses are given to community members or groups and a monthly report of the feedback received and responses given is sent to Tearfunds head office in London. Many project teams include staff with specific responsibility for supporting the mechanism, such as Accountability Officers or Community Animators.
Tearfund has established these systems in project locations in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), West and South Darfur in Sudan, Upper Nile and Bahr el Ghazal in South Sudan and Kapisa, Kandahar and Jawzjan in Afghanistan. This article presents a synthesis of Tearfunds experiences across these four emergency programmes, sharing the challenges encountered and suggesting recommendations.
Overview of feedback received
In DRC, the Beneficiary Accountability Officer (BAO) and Community Animators received a regular flow of feedback from communities. This appeared to be open and honest, including many negative comments. Communities reported misconduct by Tearfund staff and by their own committees, and there were complaints about targeting and project design. Communities often used the mechanism as a means to request further services.
In Darfur, the majority of feedback was either to do with issues that were beyond Tearfunds ability to address, or were requests for the provision of services. In some project sites complaints included issues relating to the conduct of staff, and in others feedback concerned project management and targeting criteria. Most was verbal. Complaints about staff conduct were addressed through existing performance management systems or escalated for investigation, depending on the seriousness of the complaint; one complaint about an alleged fraud was investigated and the staff member was dismissed.
In South Sudan, the vast majority of feedback was given verbally. Requests for the provision of services were common, and complaints and enquiries were mostly about project design, such as when a grinding mill was going to be repaired or why Tearfund was ending work on primary healthcare in a particular location.
In Afghanistan, virtually all of the feedback was given verbally and no negative comments or complaints were received. Rather, the feedback focused on appreciation for services given, for instance disaster risk reduction training, distributions of water filters and requests for the extension of these services.
A number of challenges in establishing effective feedback and complaints systems across the four Tearfund programmes have emerged.
Challenges with communities
Tearfund has found that expectations are raised when communities are asked for feedback, as people then feel disappointed or ignored if they perceive that no action is taken in response and lose faith in the feedback system. In Darfur, for instance, people asked for Tearfund to do things that were outside of its sectoral focus and expertise. Particular problems arose in insecure locations where it was difficult for staff to visit the communities sufficiently regularly to follow up on feedback received. In Afghanistan, community members appeared to fear losing assistance if they made complaints. In many operating environments it takes considerable time to build trust and confidence in the transparency of the process, especially in places where corruption or conflict lead many people to doubt that such a process can exist.
Complaints against community leaders pose another challenge to feedback mechanisms. Examples include complaints that a community committee was given money to pay technicians to dig latrine holes but instead kept the money for themselves, or that a community leader did not treat community members with respect. It is difficult for people to raise concerns in public meetings when community leaders are present. Traditional community dispute resolution systems often work through traditional leaders and community members may be unfamiliar with a system that encourages people to complain directly to an NGO. Holding separate meetings for women and girls, men and youth is a more effective way of managing feedback and complaints concerning community leaders.
In DRC, Sudan, South Sudan and Afghanistan there is a predominantly verbal tradition in many areas and literacy rates are historically low. A particular challenge is managing confidentiality when most feedback is given verbally. In DRC, staff found large community meetings to be a very effective way of sharing project information, but some complaints and feedback were better dealt with in smaller meetings. There may also be issues relating to gender, age or class which prevent particular community members or groups from speaking in public meetings; again, holding separate meetings for different groups can help overcome this barrier. Extra effort is also needed to ensure that verbal feedback is recorded by project staff and included in reporting, and managers need to ensure accuracy when translation is required.
Challenges with staff
There has been a tendency for some staff to focus on the hardware elements of the system, such as notice boards and suggestions boxes, without fully grasping the underlying principles and values that form the foundation of effective feedback and complaints systems. This may be due to limited induction. Staff have not always asked different groups how they prefer to feed back or make complaints, which can result in the mechanism not meeting their needs. Tearfund has found that some staff do not feel confident that they understand every aspect of the overall project, and so feel unable to respond to feedback about other aspects. Some staff may feel threatened and may interpret complaints as a poor reflection on their performance. As a result they may not welcome feedback and may fear the implications of being reported on by communities or by their colleagues. In this context lack of support from managers has a big impact on the effectiveness of accountability systems and has been cited as a key constraint by staff.
Lastly there are issues of staff capacity. Senior managers in DRC highlighted the value of having a dedicated Beneficiary Accountability Officer (BAO) budgeted into each project, and have trialled combining these responsibilities with other functions such as monitoring and evaluation and community mobilisation. Community Animators at the village level support mobilisation and reinforce the feedback system to the BAO. In Afghanistan the accountability focal point in each field location has not been a dedicated role and it has proved difficult to find the right balance between having dedicated accountability staff and making sure that accountability is understood as everyones responsibility. There is also a danger of a dedicated role being perceived by the rest of the team as the Accountability Police. In many programmes projects cover wide geographical areas, making it impossible for one BAO to get round to all the communities or project sites regularly enough. In such instances it would be preferable for other staff also to gather feedback and respond to it. In highly insecure project locations further work is needed to develop accountability systems and structures such as Beneficiary Reference Groups (BRGs groups of community members who gather feedback and pass it to Tearfund).
Recommendations for improvement
1. Develop comprehensive induction programmes for staff
Induction needs to be improved to include more information about projects, more detail on the basics of accountability and steps to address staff fears about the feedback system. Refresher training is needed to keep staff current and to address staff turnover. It is important to make induction sessions creative, and to use practical examples to build enthusiasm behind accountability. Having dedicated capacity to focus on staff induction, training and follow-up will strengthen the overall effectiveness of the feedback and complaints system. This has cost implications, unless the extra responsibilities can be undertaken within existing roles.
2. Emphasise accountability within line management
Line managers need to reinforce the importance of accountability systems alongside their other responsibilities, and to lead by example. This can be done through existing performance management and appraisal systems, for example by including the establishment and promotion of the accountability system as part of a staff members objectives. It may be useful to introduce a checklist for managers to review levels of compliance with the requirements of feedback and complaints systems.
3. Ensure adequate capacity to manage the feedback and complaints system
Ensure that roles and responsibilities are clear and that there are sufficient staff in Accountability Officer- or Community Animator-type roles. In Tearfunds experience, donors have been willing to fund such roles and have been supportive of the approach. Develop community reference groups so that representatives can be fully involved with the NGO in reviewing and responding to feedback and complaints.
4. Ensure an equivalent feedback and complaints system for staff
An effective staff feedback and complaints mechanism should be in place. Such a move will match the organisations commitment to listening to and responding to community feedback and complaints with a commitment to listening to its own staff. This will reinforce consistency in good practice across the organisations policies and procedures.
5. Ensure timely responses are provided to the feedback and complaints received
There is a general recognition that the more effectively the NGO responds to feedback the more community members will be encouraged to use the system and any initial reservations or suspicion will be reduced. Little or no negative comment should not be interpreted as a community being completely happy with a project, but rather that the mechanisms in place to facilitate their feedback and complaints are not yet fully functioning. Factors such as the length of time the NGO has been working on the ground have been found to be less significant than the attitude and commitment of project staff.
6. Provide clarity on the scope of feedback and complaints
Clarify that feedback is encouraged on poor behaviour, poor quality and poor delivery. Whilst this is an enormous challenge in many of the environments where humanitarian agencies work, it is vital to manage expectations so that communities understand what constitutes a complaint and what response they can expect from the NGO. This should be part of a broader commitment to providing clear information on the organisation, its mandate and its goals. It is also vital that the message is reinforced that communities are free to give their honest opinions, and that they will not be penalised or assistance withheld as a result of negative feedback. It is also important to distinguish between the feedback and complaints system and regular project monitoring and evaluation, with clarity for staff on what each is intended to address.
David Bainbridge is Tearfunds International Director.