Complaining in NSW 101

This post was written by a friend of WalkSydney who works for local government, but wishes to remain anonymous.

We want better environments and infrastructure for walking and cycling from our governments. Ordinary people like you and me can sometimes only get action on these issues from government by complaining. A little forewarning of how things are shared or carved up within government can help you complain more efficiently and effectively.

What is your complaint?


Do you want to make a complaint?

Is it about a specific place? Is it about a specific policy? Keep it tight and targeted. Being specific makes it quicker to assign to the right officer or team and you are more likely to be heard/read by people with relevant expertise.

There’s another school of thought which says you should bring in as many senior public officials as possible by tacking on many disparate issues that require cross-department referrals and input. In my experience of Local and State Government, a rambling complaint which travails across multiple issues and jurisdictions won’t have much effect. The person who ends up stuck dealing with such a request will probably be low in the pecking order because everyone else will have been able to delegate it away.

How should you make a complaint?

Complaints in writing generally have more impact because the response will generally have to be in writing too. A phone call can waste your time, because the switchboard operators will generally not be subject matter experts and not know who is best to help you. Petitions work for large issues where the numbers become overwhelming, but an equal number of individually written letters or emails will have a greater impact because of the implied effort required to prepare them.

The NSW Government Ombudsman’s Office has tools and information to help you prepare complaints and get them to the right place including this handy brochure with tips and contact information to help you.

Even if you intend to make your complaint by phone or in person, write it down first and leave it overnight. When you return to it you’ll have an easier time staying calm and coherent. Don’t be aggressive or abusive as this only makes the people who receive your complaint less sympathetic to you. Don’t make allegations of criminal behaviour or corruption unless you are putting them to the Independent Commission Against Corruption or the Police. Alcohol is not a performance enhancing drug when it comes to complaint.

Where should you complain?

Find out what level and part of the government is responsible for the thing you are complaining about.

  • Vehicle emissions, climate change or energy policy? Thats probably a federal government issue.
  • Road rules, public transport, major roads and big infrastructure? That’s probably a State government issue.
  • A local street, footpath or parking problem? That’s probably your local Council.

Where this gets tough is that many active transport issues have shared responsibility. The State Government through its agency Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) has powers over all roads within a very broad remit. Under the Roads Act 1993 all “Freeways” and many other important types of roads are placed into the exclusive ownership and control of RMS. These “classified” roads are the arteries of Sydney’s internal road network and the intercity network of highways, freeways and motorways that connect it to the rest of the State. RMS and its roads have historically placed a higher priority on the movement of vehicles rather than the movement of people or the amenity of places. These roads are often the greatest barriers to active transport initiatives, and for historical reasons tend to run right through the centres of towns and suburbs.

In NSW most other roads and streets are the responsibility of a local Council. They have powers under the Roads Act 1993 to manage and control most streets and roads by default. This includes non-exclusive powers to open and close roads with all their associated street infrastructure like footpaths and shared paths. Ownership of the land within local streets allow Councils to regulate verges, street trees, footpaths and driveways which can enhance or detract from active transport. Further, RMS has delegated many of its traffic and parking management powers for local streets to Councils. Councils exercise these powers under the supervision of Local Traffic Committees which are made up of a single representative from each of the following organisations:

  • the relevant Local Council;
  • NSW Police;
  • RMS; and
  • the relevant local member of State Parliament or their representative.


To whom should you complain?

Again this depends on the specifics of your issue. You can complain directly to the agency or Council responsible. Your complaint will be noted in their Customer Relationship Management System (CRMS), assigned a time frame and then be passed around between departments and officers until it (hopefully) finds the right person to prepare a response. Given the volume of complaints and issues governments deal with, the mandatory response times can be long. Keeping your complaint focussed and concise is helpful in this process because the people directing it initially will not be subject matter experts.

Governments at all levels often have an Ombudsman to handle and investigate complaints about the conduct of government agencies. Generally, you would only approach the ombudsman if the responsible agency had not handled your complaint satisfactorily. The NSW Ombudsman’s website is a great starting point for complaining about State agencies Your local Council may have its own ombudsman.

Complaining via a politician can be advantageous in several ways. Firstly, by receiving your complaint the elected representative gets a better understanding of what issues matter to their voters. If they get thousands of letters about parking rather than pedestrians safety (and most of them do), then thats what they will prioritise through their decision making. Secondly, politicians will generally have a good idea which part of government is suited to respond to your complaint. This can help save time getting your complaint into the correct inbox. Finally, public servants generally have to respond to complaints from politicians with greater urgency.

Pick a politician with relevance, authority and proximity to the issue you’ve got. Politicians are more motivated as elections approach, so timing can be important. Mayors may not have the power to solve an issue, but they are often well connected and can use their profile to create media around a local issue. Your State MP has relevant powers through the local traffic committee and a role in law making through parliament. The State Ministers for Transport and Roads may be the most powerful of all because they control the powerful State regulations, policies and agency budgets, but your complaint is likely to be swamped in the sheer volume of correspondence they receive. Commonwealth members of Parliament will often refer your complaint on to the relevant agency, but most active transport matters are outside their jurisdiction.

What next?

If your complaint doesn’t get the response you want, there are other paths open to you. Community Action Groups, peak bodies, not for profits and political parties all have influence on the decisions of government. The decisions are made by those who turn up, so I encourage you to get involved.

If your complaint is about walking in or around Sydney, post it here at WalkSydney. Contact us to learn how.


Useful Links and Numbers

NSW Local Government

NSW State Government

Commonwealth Government