‘Shaming’ mistakes in complaints handling has lessons for Whitehall

14 April 2014

Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) says a culture of denial and failure of leadership in public services in handling complaints is what leads to failures like the Mid-Staffs hospital disaster.

The Mid-Staffs crisis, which highlighted how leadership failures to hear and address concerns from patients, their families, and staff led to "unspeakable disaster", sparked the PASC inquiry.

Opportunities to offer sufficient redress, improve services and boost public confidence missed in poor complaints handling. PASC calls for "single point of contact for citizens to make complaints about Government departments or agencies", which provides "meaningful human support at the end of a telephone for those who need it."

The Committee concludes success depends on the right leadership of public services which values complaints as critical for improving, and learning about, their service.

PASC often heard the words ‘complexity’ and ‘confusion’ about complaints processes. It can be an "appeal" or "review" or "feedback".  The report concludes, "A complaint is a complaint... nobody should be shy of the term ‘complaint’... Other euphemistic terms for ‘complaint’ should be banned."

The report, entitled "More Complaints Please!" says:

  • How complaints are handled determines the quality of the relationship between consumers and public services
  • The best performing organisations welcome complaints as a way of engaging consumers
  • A failure to recognise the importance of complaints leads to insufficient redress for the individual, limits the impact that complaints have in improving services, and alienates the public


The Committee recommends that the Government should:

  • appoint a minister for Government policy on complaints handling to provide leadership from the top
  • ensure the Cabinet Office review of complaints handling changes attitudes and behaviour at all levels in respect of complaints handling
  • ensure ministers themselves investigate complaints MPs raise with them, and that is not be delegated (which contributed to ministers’ blindness about Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust)
  • create a single point of contact for citizens to make complaints about Government departments and agencies

Committee Chair

Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"There needs to be a revolution in the way public services are run, and how the public perceives Government.  As things are, most people believe there is no point in complaining. The shocking collapse of care at Mid-Staffs hospital should be a warning to the whole public sector that too many managers in public services are in denial about what their customers and their staff think about them.  The Francis Report gave no comfort that the culture of denial does not exist across most of the NHS, though we hope that is now changing.

There are encouraging signs of increased attention to good complaints handling, but the Government itself does not comply with best practice in complaints handling or adapting to the needs and expectations of today’s citizen.  This starts from the top.  Government itself needs to lead by example.  That’s why ministerial leadership is crucial.

Unless and until we have a culture of leadership in public services that listens to, values and responds to complaints, from service users and staff, there will always be the potential for tragedies like Mid-Staffs, and opportunities to improve services and public confidence will be missed again and again."

Further information

Image: iStockphoto

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