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Complaints, Ombuds and reviewers, System design

Re-imagining public-sector complaint systems


screenshot-2018-10-03-09-12-51.pngBy Chris Gill

Public-sector complaint systems often do not meet the needs of those who use them, those who operate them, and others who have a stake in them.[1] They can be hard to access, they can be costly, and their broader public value is rarely demonstrated. At the same time, the theoretical potential of complaint systems as means of challenging the status quo, enhancing democratic governance, and allowing for direct participation in public decision-making has been widely recognised.

In this context, academics from Canada, the United States, and Scotland recently came together at a workshop at the University of Victoria, Canada, to re-think how complaint systems in public services are designed, with a particular emphasis on ‘co-constructing justice’ with citizens.[2]

In this blog post, Chris Gill of the University of Glasgow outlines some personal reflections on complaint system design that were inspired by the workshop. The blog begins by highlighting current problems within the UK’s public-sector complaint systems and then discusses three key considerations for the future design of complaint systems, considering them in terms of their philosophy, purpose, and practices.

Problems with public-sector complaint systems in the UK

Where they have been conducted, assessments of the UK’s public-sector complaint systems have been damning. Most recently, the National Audit Office’s report Public Sector Markets: Putting Things Right When They go Wrong found almost half (49%) of people who experience a problem with a public service do not complain, while only 31% of those who do complain are satisfied with the outcome of their complaints. Commenting on the findings, Sir Amyas Morse (Comptroller and Auditor General) said:

‘Many users have problems with public services, and serious detriment can and does occur. If government took the power of redress to improve public services seriously, it would recognize that the present system is incoherent and dissatisfying to users and would show urgency in reforming and rationalizing the system.’[3]

These findings echo previous assessments by the NAO. In 2005, Citizens Redress: What Public Services Can Do When Things go Wrong with Public Services, the NAO found that complaint systems were confusing, inefficient and costly. Revisiting that report in 2010, the authors described the UK’s complaint systems as providing a ‘lousy service at a high cost’.[4]

In the UK’s devolved jurisdictions, some of these issues are being addressed. In Scotland, for example, following a review by Professor Lorne Crerar that found concerns similar to those highlighted by the NAO, a new system of simplified and standardised complaint handling has been devised under the aegis of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman. Similarly, in Wales, proactive attempts have been made by the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales to lead the standardisation of devolved public service complaint procedures.

Even in the devolved jurisdictions, however, questions remain as to whether current public-sector complaint systems are correctly calibrated. Indeed, given the impetus to improve complaint handling in these jurisdictions, it is perhaps an opportune time to pause and re-think the foundations on which the UK’s approach to public-sector complaint handling are based. The rest of this blog post, therefore, attempts to take a step back and provide a broad analysis of the philosophy, purpose, and practices underpinning complaint systems in order to:

(a) better understand the kind of complaint systems we currently have and

(b) consider alternatives for future complaint system design.

The philosophy of complaint systems

Why do we have complaint systems? For many, the answer will be straightforward: they provide individual redress and help improve services. The simplicity of such an answer, however, obscures the fact that it represents an endorsement of a particular underpinning philosophy, which is rarely explicitly discussed and whose approach is heavily influenced by consumerist and managerial understandings. This has been shaped by the import of a private-sector mentality to public services, which sees complaints as:

(a) concerning individual, atomised issues rather than matters of public interest and

(b) a performance management tool for managers, rather than a more transformative and powerful means of democratic engagement.

This way of seeing complaints systems owes its origins to the Citizen’s Charter reforms of the mid-1990s, which sought to leverage complaints as vehicles for recasting citizens as consumers and replicating models of private sector practice in the public sector. That fundamental approach, which we might call a consumerist-managerial paradigm, remains at the unspoken core of today’s public-sector complaints system. It is so deeply embedded in thinking about complaint systems, that it is often difficult to break the mould and consider alternatives (the NAO’s report noted above, linking complaints to the functioning of ‘public services markets’ is revealing in terms of how complaints are currently conceptualised in government).

And yet alternatives exist. Might we, for example, consider the purpose of complaints system as being to manage, restore, and regulate the relationship between citizens and the state? Such a relational view, seeing complaints not as opportunities to identify and remedy service failures, but as opportunities to restore relationships, share experience, and co-create value between citizens and state institutions would represent a dramatic shift in outlook and methodology from the current system. Similarly, complaints could be reconceptualised as an expression of citizenship and a form of democratic participation.[5]

Such ideas are occasionally mentioned in discussions of public-service complaint systems, but – if this were the philosophical justification for complaint systems – would they look like the systems we currently have? Probably not. A cynical view might be that complaint systems largely perform the function of controlling and limiting public expressions of discontent, rather than providing opportunities for genuine engagement in public decision-making about service delivery. Indeed, one analysis of public-sector complaint systems is that they convert complex expressions of discontent and demands to be heard into bureaucratically manageable ‘cases’ to be ‘processed’. Rather than opportunities for dialogue, complaint systems can be seen as mechanisms for control, reducing political demands for change into ‘consumer issues’ and ‘management information’.

The purpose of complaint systems

What are complaint systems for? The best answer to this question and one which cross-cuts the philosophical orientations above (consumerist-managerial, relational-democratic) is that complaints systems are for learning. But what does learning mean in this context? There are two potential ways in which the purpose of complaints systems as learning mechanisms can be conceptualised.

Complaint systems as systems of control. In this view, complaints systems operate largely as a means of policing and ensuring compliance with existing rules and values in public-service delivery. Complaints systems are not there to challenge these rules, but to ensure that public services operate within them. This perspective is inherently conservative: learning is ‘single loop’ and involves bringing services into conformity with existing standards.[6] From a citizen’s perspective, therefore, such a system only operates in a citizen-centred way to the extent that the wider system of public-service delivery is citizen-centred. Here complaints systems correct errors and deviations from established policies, procedures, and practices but have little to say about the standards themselves. They are not sites at which standards are set, created, and re-imagined but merely sites at which standards are enforced.

Complaints systems as systems for disruptive innovation. In this view, complaints systems are not mechanisms for enforcing the status quo and keeping the system in a balance that may or may not service citizens’ interests. Instead, they are mechanisms that disrupt the status quo and provide opportunities for ‘double loop’ learning – not simply bringing services into compliance with existing practice, but rethinking fundamental approaches. Here complaints are sources of innovation that can transform public services.[7] Rather than being self-control mechanisms that allow the state to police itself and ensure that existing approaches are consistently implemented, complaint systems become methods for identifying innovative and creative practices that are beyond the state’s existing consensus and settlement. Complaint systems are deliberately disruptive and geared towards providing challenging and dislocating inputs that are otherwise very hard for public services to identify and act upon. Rather than being inherently conservative and designed to keep systems under control and working within existing parameters, complaint systems are radically disruptive.

Where do current complaint systems fit? In keeping with the fundamental consumerist-managerial paradigm described above, it is perhaps not surprising that complaint systems operate largely within the control model. Complaint systems currently aim to contain and manage public dissatisfaction in a way that seeks to satisfy the individual and provides data that allow managers to know whether their programmes are being implemented correctly on the ground. They are means of containing and controlling potential disruption resulting from citizens’ experiences, not means of harnessing them and using them for innovation.

The practices of complaint systems

Clearly, the practices of complaint systems will be shaped intimately by their underpinning philosophy and purpose. A relational system focused on bringing about radical change will require a quite different range of techniques compared to one that is managerially focused and limits itself largely to ensuring correct programme implementation.  The range of complaint handling processes and practices is extensive, but there are perhaps two broad sets of practices that may be deployed.

Discussion, exchange, and consensus building. This set of complaint practices aims to provide the parties involved with a full opportunity to discuss and understand each other’s perspectives. Reaching empathetic and subjective understanding of why a complaint has arisen and why a service has been perceived as unsatisfactory is key. Understanding is non-judgemental and the process does not seek to allocate blame or determine whether specific standards have been met. Rather, the process seeks to build consensus through reaching better understandings of the perceptions, motivations, and justifications underlying the actions of parties in a complaint. The process of exchange is crucial to the process of learning: the complaint process allows a better understanding of citizens’ experiences, brings public servants into close connection with the concerns of those who have used a service, and provides opportunities to shift bureaucratic perspectives outside the organisational setting. Such processes require high levels of trust between citizens and public servants and a willingness to listen, share, and learn in a forum that is unpredictable and could lead to a revaluation of bureaucratic practices. Such processes are often very open, with no limitations on the range and type of issues that can be discussed and addressed.

Expert assessment, objective measurement, and determination. The second set of practices is less interested in subjective experiences and more interested in objective verification of standards. Here the exchange of information in the course of a complaint process is largely an instrumental process which allows for an expert decision maker to determine whether standards have been breached. Objectivity is important and learning is predicated on the determination that services have not met certain pre-ordained standards. These processes are inherently confrontational and antagonistic since they require the citizen to formulate their concerns in terms of service failures and inevitably lead to outcomes where blame is allocated to one or other party (either the service has failed or the complaint is misdirected). The aim of such processes is to convert public dissatisfaction into formats that are capable of being managed ‘efficiently’ and ‘proportionately’ by bureaucracies. Ultimately, such processes aim to provide certainty and resolution: outcomes should be predictable, rational, and confirm the existing values of the system. Dialogue is avoided because dialogue is risky and could open bureaucracies up to demands for change that bureaucracies are either incapable or unwilling to act upon.

Conclusion: re-imagining complaint systems?

Public-sector complaint systems cannot be one size fits all. A process that will work for a bin complaint, may well end up being a “dustbin” for a matter of serious public interest.[8] The current model, based on a transactional, individualized, consumer-provider ethic, does not provide opportunities for democratic dialogue or engagement. And in many contexts that may be right.

But what do citizens most want when making a complaint? The idea that they are self-interested consumers of services is off the mark in many settings. Perhaps what citizens most want when they complain is some recognition that they are fulfilling a civic duty by doing so and that their concerns will be heard and lead to change in the public interest. It is of course the case that individuals will often elide their own interests with the public interest, but that is not a reason to reduce complaints down to consumer issues that are narrowly conceived as individual matters.

They only become issues of that type once they have been refracted through the lens of the bureaucratic mechanisms set up to deal with them. It is here that wide ranging, complex, multi-layered attempts to get the state to listen and engage – in matters that fuse the personal and public – are reduced to issues capable of ‘determination’ or ‘adjudication’. It may be that this is what some people want when they complain. But for many, being given a reference number and sent a letter telling them they were right or wrong in 10 working days is unlikely to be a satisfactory response to the civic act of complaining.

It is of course also the case that many demands on the state are unreasonable – and unreasonably put – and must be resisted on the grounds of protecting the community’s interests. Indeed, this is a central irony of current complaint systems. At the same time as they arise from an agenda that advocates consumer entitlement and seeks to turn citizens into consumers of public services, so they also tell those consumers that they expect too much.

As a result, complaint systems are much about ‘managing expectations’ – jargon for telling citizens whose expectations have been hyped by consumer rhetoric that they are not in reality entitled to the rights or services they imagined. Tell citizens to have high expectations and then provide a cheap and ‘proportionate’ means of telling those individuals that complain that they are out of line, expect too much, and that those expectations offend the broader community. This is akin to the form of ‘cooling out’ that has been much criticised by critics of ADR in other contexts, where complaint systems are largely mechanisms designed to control and neutralise public discontent.

Inspired by the workshop referred to above, this blog post concludes with a call to pause and to consider carefully not only the functioning of current public-sector complaint systems but also their underpinning philosophy, purpose, and practices. Currently, even the best attempts at reform involve perfecting the existing paradigm and its associated practices, rather than proceeding from first principles. It may be that such a pause will continue to endorse current systems as a pragmatic and inevitable approach in the context of modern public services and political imperatives. But if we are to continue along the current trajectory, let us at least be clear about its underlying impetus and recognise its values, its limitations, and its missed opportunities.

About the author:

Dr Chris Gill is Lecturer in Public Law, University of Glasgow.


[1] This blog is concerned with internal complaint handling mechanisms i.e. those operated by government bodies to handle complaints about themselves.

[2] The workshop was funded by a Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Connections Grant. The principal investigator was Tara Ney (University of Victoria), and the co-investigators were Carol Brennan (Queen Margaret University), Michelle Le Baron (University of British Columbia), and Chris Gill (University of Glasgow). Contributors to the workshop included: Richard Simmons (Stirling University), Aaron Leaky (BC Ministry of Justice), Lisa Amsler (Indiana University), Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly (University of Victoria), Mariana H.C. Gonstead (University of St Thomas), Jane Williams (Queen Margaret University), Jesper Christiansen (NESTA UK), Jennifer Llewelyn (Dalhousie University).

[3] https://www.nao.org.uk/press-release/public-service-markets-putting-things-right-when-they-go-wrong-3/

[4] Dunleavy, P., Bastow, S., Tinkler, J., Goldchluk, S., & Towers, E. (2010). Joining up citizen redress in UK central government. In M. Adler (ed.), Administrative justice in context, (421-56). Oxford: Hart.

[5] Questions about the underlying philosophy of complaint systems have recently been discussed By Nick O’Brien in relation to the ombudsman institution. See O’Brien, N. 2018 (forthcoming). Ombudsmen and public authorities: a modest proposal. In Handbook of Ombudsman Research, M. Hertogh and R. Kirkham, Edward Elgar.

[6] Single loop learning involves making changes to existing systems within existing paradigms. Double loop learning involves taking a step back and changing whole systems and paradigms. See Argyris, C., Schön, D.A. 1978. Organizational Learning: a Theory of Action Perspective. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

[7] Simmons, R. and Brennan, C., 2017. User voice and complaints as drivers of innovation in public services. Public Management Review, 19(8), pp.1085-1104.

[8] The phrase ‘dustbin for complaints’ has been used by critics of current public-sector complaint systems e.g. PHSO the Facts.


2 thoughts on “Re-imagining public-sector complaint systems

  1. A thoughtful and intelligent piece that rightly questions the current status quo. The reality is that our public service complaints systems are invariably designed to both anticipate and mirror the adjudicatory technique of the judicial system, whilst presenting themselves as an alternative to the adversarial methodology of the courts. We find ourselves seeking to delineate fact and opinion through investigatory practices that focus on the causation of past events and which pronounce findings, conclusions and recommendations on individual citizen/state transactions.

    The muddying of the waters is amplified by the presence of negligence related casework within the NHS system, a kind of ‘small claims court’ charged with determining matters of liability and damage as opposed to dispute resolution. The situation is further compounded by wrongful the use of investigative approaches to answer the public’s general questions about civic rights, entitlements, administrative practice and other related matters. Such interactions should be simply part of the ‘day job’, not a default lurch towards the forensic tool kit. There is a democratic deficit in the current model and a re-imagining is indeed overdue.

    Posted by Steve Carney | January 30, 2019, 3:12 pm
  2. “complaints systems operate largely as a means of policing and ensuring compliance with existing rules and values in public-service delivery.”

    Only you omitted to say this applies only to administrative processes, which ignores everything else which may be of greater importance. E.g. PHSO has scoped out NHS cases of negligence to be investigated only on whether administrative processes were followed or not, which may not always be relevant to what went wrong.

    Why was England not included in this process and it would have been good to have mention that ombudsmen are part of that complaints process to make their complaint handling failings crystal clear.

    Posted by EJ | October 3, 2018, 5:23 pm

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