An Overview of Complaints Response Mechanism of SPO
Following the Pakistan floods in 2011, SPO collaborated with Raabta Consultants for the designing of two way communication system with the disaster affected population of 2011 floods. SPO was working across Sindh province and had just started a new project in Mirpur Khas district, distributing food items and shelter to those worse affected. SPO requested Raabta Consultants for developing and setting up a Complaints and Response Mechanism during the flood relief distribution project to improve accountability and transparency before, during and after the distribution had taken place.
SPO had five partner organisations working across the district – one in each of the five Union Councils of Mirpur Khas. Following an assessment process SPO selected a total of 475 beneficiaries across 24 villages, overseen by a project team of seven staff members.
At each village a council comprising two men and one woman had been selected by the villagers. It was with these councils that the partner organisations liaised and ensured that the food and non-food items were distributed to the beneficiaries.
A concern of the SPO’s head office in Islamabad was that complaints and feedback from beneficiaries in previous projects had not been documented or dealt with effectively. Although the partner organisations were trusted by the NGO, the head office still wanted to ensure transparency and accountability over the distribution process – and this included over the project staff and the village councils.
After a series of consultations with the SPO’s team in the head office, the consulting team was sent to the field for exploring means of receiving and managing verbal and written feedback from the beneficiaries – that is, to create an effective Complaints and Response Mechanism (CRM). FrontlineSMS, a tool which had been used in several interventions before, presented itself as the most appropriate means for handling the SMS-based feedback.
During field visit, consulting team organized multiple sessions with both genders of prospective beneficiaries of the project about use of mobile phones for direct communication with project management. The response was overwhelming and everyone was ready to communicate directly with project management whether s/he owns a mobile phone or not, they were ready to borrow one from other friend or family member. Literacy among the beneficiaries (who had been selected as the most disadvantaged in each village: often those with disabilities; children-headed households; or female-headed households) was low so SPO also had to design a system that would be accessible and useful across the board. The fact that a beneficiary, or a friend or relative of a beneficiary, could send a message directly to the NGO and not necessarily go through the village council or partner organisation was seen as a large step forward.
The remainder of the training was spent going through Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) guidelines for CRMs, creating alternative means for complaints and feedback (written, verbal in person, verbal over the phone), and ensuring that the internal response and feedback handling system was robust and secure enough to address any feedback that came through in an accountable while also protecting the complainant’s identity.
Configuring a setup on FrontlineSMS that was accessible even to illiterate phone users was the next challenge. Sindhi is largely written in Arabic text, but not all handsets can recognise the Unicode in which it appears, and there were some issues when extracting the data from FrontlineSMS to Google Docs. It was suggested to use Google Docs Spreadsheets to store the extracted FrontlineSMS data to allow the step-by-step follow up records to continue in the same spreadsheet. An added benefit of using Google docs was that it allowed the line manager to remotely ensure that all complaints were being dealt with according to procedure.
Following the conversations in the villages, the team devised a numbering system for complaints ranging from 1-0, as follows: 1 = Food items, 2 = Shelter, 3 = Conflict 4 = Corruption, 5 = Issues with NGO staff, 6 = Issues with Partner Organisation staff, 7 = Issues with Village Council, 8 = Issues affecting women and children, 9 = Issues affecting those with disabilities, and 0 as a means of saying thank you or appreciation of services rendered under the project. This numbering system allowed for automatic replies through FrontlineSMS tailored to the complaint as well as a response time. When extracted to Google Docs it also allowed the complaints officer to quantify the number of complaints across different issues.
This numbering system was printed on cards with corresponding pictures, and the SMS and feedback system was also explained through diagrams. On the cards a telephone numbers for verbal complaints and instructions for written complaints, was also included. Having printed out leaflets, posters and cards the teams went to every village and explained the process to beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries alike. It is this critical step – the in-person relationship – that makes the difference in the popular uptake of a communications system. During this process project team documented all beneficiary phone numbers or relatives/friends phone numbers, which were then saved in FrontlineSMS. This meant that every message received in FrontlineSMS would also have a name attached to it, and so that every auto reply contained the name of the sender.
Through the groups feature on the software; groups of villagers were created so that before each aid distribution process the project team could send messages alerting the beneficiaries to its arrival, and following the distribution process active feedback via SMS could be solicit. When a message was received, the response manager would call back, ask for more information and then follow the internal complaints procedure derived from HAP guidelines.
Over the three-month aid distribution project SPO received 725 messages, 456 of which followed the numbering system. Fewer than ten complaint phone calls were made and no verbal complaints were ever logged by the project staff. Whether this was due to staff not following the complaints procedure was unclear, but what we did learn was that giving people a direct means with which to register a complaint or feedback on a system that protected their identity and data, and that could not be tampered with, empowered the beneficiaries of the project. Further, the simple fact of awareness of this system amongst partner organisations, the village councils and the project staff meant that they knew their actions were now accountable.