Complaints, Whistleblowing and the Fear Factor

complaints box The Guardian ran an online discussion last week about complaint handling and Richard Simmons from Stirling University came up with as good a list as I have seen


1. Keep a range of channels open for complaints (to provide choice in the way complaints can be made)

2. Transform grumbles and gripes into recorded comments (treat them seriously)

3. Use new technology to record and respond to complaints (to make complaining and working together to resolve complaints easier)

4. Give citizens more immediate feedback (so that they understand how their complaint travels within the system and where they are on that journey)

5. Learn from complaints data alongside other sources of intelligence (organisations collect data on complaints and this could be better used to redesign services)

6. Inform consumers of the analysis and outcome of complaints (to improve accountability and give opportunities to collaborate in co-producing service improvement, including important minority groups )

7. Lead a culture of openness (strategic leadership is needed to create a listening culture and staff need support to develop relational skills)

8. Give frontline staff the power and flexibility to quickly resolve complaints and feed into change and innovation (avoiding processes that overly formalise complaints too quickly)

9. Communicate effectively with consumers (to understand their needs, empathise with them, be sensitive, interested and professional)

10. Remodel complaint procedures (so that they are smart and consumer friendly)

For good measure, he made some good stuff recommendations to government, ombudsman and regulators and service providers.  Great. Complaint handling is increasingly resembling service user/ patient participation. The topic has a certain maturity: there is a consensus both on the necessity of getting it right and how to do it. It is discussed at conferences; articulated in a variety of official reports and suggestions made for structural and process changes. All agree on what a good idea it is.

There is just one problem – it has not and is not happening.

My view is that it is not happening for much the same reason that whistleblowing has not caught on in say the Health Service. Roy Lilley was musing about this at a recent session of the People’s Inquiry saying that no one seemed to know why. Well I can tell him. It is the fear factor. This is what people mean when they make rather coded references to a culture change being needed.

It has long been established that consumers do not complain where and when they think they will be putting themselves in harm’s way when they do so. It is one of the best established and validated behaviours. Frustrated customer service managers are always to be heard uttering their mantra “complain at the time and on the spot”.

No thanks. The user knows this for a fact – do not complain about the nurses when you are still on their ward – they have the power if not of life and death – thinks – well yes actually they do; do not complain in the restaurant because someone will spit in your soup; do not make a fuss at the check-in desk in case you are arrested by security; do not give your GP grief or you will be struck off their list. Wait until you get home and can safely abuse people on the internet (so easy to hide behind the cloak of anonymity) or if you have the energy and the anger, engage and try for a solution. The situation gets even more tricky when the supplier you are complaining about is the only game in town, like the Health Service. The parallel with public sector whistleblowing is now obvious  – complaining about your employer when they are by far the principal source of employment is very frightening on a level well above the spit in the soup syndrome.

Ann Clwyd and the brave and persistent people of mid-Staffs finally were heard, but for many the person whom they cared for and wanted the better treatment for was not around to receive it. While they were alive, the focus had to be on getting them better care now  – today –  this week – not after the two years that an Ombudsman finding might take or the six months of a formal local complaint.

The Health Services Ombudsman is very fond when talking about public service complaint handling, of the phrase ‘toxic cocktail’. The question is why run the risk of being the person who has to drink it? Complaining and blowing the whistle – there is a warning on the packet: Injurious to your health.


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