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A study into complaints by Baños Smith (2009, ‘The right to a say and the duty to respond’. HAP Studies Series) revealed that ‘All participants said that they would prefer to talk to someone about their complaints.’ The research showed that communities want complaints to be actively sought by an agency rather than passively received. This is supported by evidence from an Oxfam learning event held in the Philippines after the Haiyan response, which showed that despite having hotlines and complaints desks, most members of the affected population preferred the face-to-face interaction with field staff. This has led to informal feedback being given in the field which is often acted upon or responded to, but rarely documented.

Motivated by this, with the support of the HIF, Oxfam is now looking for a way to appropriately and ethically capture qualitative feedback or complaints received informally following conversations with communities in the field. By using mobile technology, we can ensure we document this sort of feedback whilst benefiting from back end reporting to keep track of how feedback has been addressed or where there are outstanding queries. We are committed to responsible data (see our policy) so we will also use this initiative to ensure we protect the privacy of those whom data is about, uphold good practice of gaining informed consent and appropriate data storage and disposal practices.

We recognise that little has been done to capture what is potentially the most insightful information available to humanitarian actors: informal feedback shared by the affected population with technical teams during field visits. Staff time pressures, challenges of tracking via paper and a lack of effective systems to capture feedback on the move have been barriers but formal mechanisms, which are usually hotlines or help desks, are not capturing this information. The use of SMS and IVR (interactive voice response) have limitations with accessibility, and are often deemed impersonal. In contrast, the value of feedback delivered in person cannot be underestimated, yet organisations including Oxfam do little to capture this invaluable information to ensure it is incorporated alongside other feedback, is responded to and inevitably leads to higher quality programming.

We are currently in the planning stage of this initiative and looking at locations to pilot the project. We will look to find a location where familiarity and trust in the use of mobile phones is strong so that understanding about mobile technology amongst the community is high. However, with this initiative focusing on process change for staff and partners, the energy and enthusiasm internally in country will be essential for piloting. We will seek to find staff that are keen to improve the ways we capture and – essentially – respond to feedback received from the communities with whom they work. We need to do this in a way that avoids additional burden on field staff to write up reports. Nearly all staff have a mobile phone in the field, coupled with the need to reduce paperwork; we think that mobile technology can enable staff to easily capture this feedback whilst on the move. Staff are already sending messages and photographs to each other and so formalising the process should not add work on to their already busy schedules. We will be looking at existing tools that can be tailored to Oxfam’s needs for both collection and reporting with the relevant technical training and support required.

The humanitarian community has consistently emphasised the importance of offering disaster affected communities the opportunity to feedback on the services they receive – both to ensure quality and hold relevant actors to account. But are we doing enough to make sure the mechanisms meet their individual needs and preferences? And ensure we really listen and respond? That’s what we want to use this grant from the HIF to explore.

Oxfam will be disseminating learning from this project widely so that all organisations can look to improve accountability and feedback mechanisms which will ultimately lead to improved and more responsive humanitarian response.

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