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Department for Communities and Social Inclusion

Disability SA Bulletin 45 - learning from incidents and complaints

September 2013 - helpful information about how organisations can build a positive complaints culture

Learning from Incidents and Complaints

Funds Management is committed to strengthening the capacity of the non-government disability service sector to provide high quality services. Understanding the nature of incidents and complaints and identifying common issues across the sector can help providers enhance their capacity to provide safe, high quality services to people with disability, their families and carers.

This is the second "Learning from Incidents and Complaints" quarterly bulletin, distributed by the Quality and Service Development team. These bulletins combine learning from complaints and incidents with best practice information that providers may find useful in improving the quality of their services.

This bulletin provides helpful information about how organisations can build a positive complaints culture.

Organisations funded by the Department for Communities and Social Inclusion (DCSI) have a contractual obligation to establish a feedback and complaints process that is accessible and responsive. The complaints process should be available to both people who use your service, including people with disability, their families, carers and advocates who may assist people to make a complaint (service users) and staff.

Effective Complaint Handling Systems

As you know, complaints are an important way for the management of an organisation to be accountable to the people accessing their services, as well as providing valuable prompts to review organisational performance and the conduct of people that work within and for it.

The Australian Complaint Handling Standard ISO AS 10002-2006 states that a complaint is an 'expression of dissatisfaction made to an organisation, related to its products, or the complaints handling process itself, where a response or resolution is explicitly or implicitly expected'.

Standards Australia

Ultimately, an effective complaints handling system provides three key benefits to an organisation:

  1. It resolves issues raised by a person who is dissatisfied in a timely and cost-effective way
  2. It provides information that can lead to improvements in service delivery and
  3. Where complaints are handled properly, a good system can improve the reputation of an organisation and strengthen public confidence in an organisation's management/services.

An effective complaints handling system commonly has three central elements:

  1. Enabling complaints – arrangements for enabling people to make complaints are customer-focused, visible, accessible and valued and supported by management. Service providers need to be open to feedback and committed to seeking appropriate resolution of complaints. This means providers should:
    • have a clearly communicated complaint handling process that is well-publicised through a variety of service delivery points such as publications, website, brochures and at front counters – in particular, information about how and where to complain needs to be well-promoted
    • provide information about the complaints process in a variety of forms of communication, formats and languages appropriate to the needs of service users, their families and carers
    • ensure that front-line staff are well aware of the complaints handling process
    • be able to accept complaints and all supporting documents in a number of different ways including in person, over the phone and in writing via email, fax and letter – and where appropriate, access to translating and interpreting services should be provided
    • ask people if they have any special requirements for access or communication – and whether they may need the support of an advocate
    • offer and provide assistance where required to help complainants with reading or writing difficulties to formulate and lodge their complaint.
  2. Responding to complaints – complaints are promptly handled in a fair, objective and confidential manner. Solutions are provided where complaints are upheld and there is a system for review. To enhance your organisation's practices you may wish to consider if:
    • complaints are acknowledged in a timely manner
    • complaints are addressed promptly and according to order of urgency - staff should be aware of any target timelines for resolving complaints
    • special arrangements for responding to particular groups of complainants should be put in place; for example, for Indigenous Australians, children and young people, people with disabilities, and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds
    • complaints are dealt with in an equitable, objective and unbiased manner - this will help to ensure that the complaint handling process is fair and reasonable
    • your complaint handling system should have a review process to effectively manage appeals
    • staff receiving and handling complaints receive appropriate guidance or training
    • personal information of the complainant and any people who are the subject of a complaint should be kept confidential – and only used for the purposes of addressing the complaint and any follow-up actions
    • mechanisms are in place for enabling appropriate remedial actions to occur when complaints are upheld, and staff should be familiar with them
    • there are opportunities for internal and external review and/or appeal about the organisation's response to the complaint, and that the complainants are informed of these avenues.
  3. Accountability and learning – there are clear accountabilities for complaint handling and complaints are used to stimulate continuous improvement. Service providers should ensure that accountabilities for complaint handling are clearly established, and that complaints and responses to them are monitored and reported to management and other relevant stakeholders. Actions to support this may include:
    • having a centralised system for recording and tracking complaints
    • ensuring that remedial actions and proposed improvements to practice are acted on
    • all correspondence relating to feedback and complaints should be managed in accordance with your organisation's record keeping practices, policies and procedures
    • monitoring the effectiveness of your complaint handling system through quality assurance or internal audit processes – and ensuring that recommendations for improvement are reported to senior management/executive staff
    • analysing complaints data and feedback to identify recurrent themes that may identify systemic issues – and use the information gathered to identify service, process and information improvements.

Creating a Positive Complaints Culture

The concept of a positive 'complaints culture' may seem odd; however, organisations that actively seek opportunities to improve the quality of their services, will understand the value of receiving complaints and feedback. Part of providing a responsive, person-centred service is recognising and enabling people's right to speak up about what's working and what's not working so well.

Organisational culture refers to an organisation's way of thinking and doing, and is closely linked to values. While a common response to receiving a complaint may be defensive, or seeking to lay blame, an organisation with a positive complaints culture will promote an environment of trust where people understand it is okay to raise issues, without fear of retribution.

A positive complaints culture is one in which people feel comfortable to provide feedback, positive or negative, about the services they receive. This culture not only empowers the people you support, their families and carers but can also assist in improving the overall quality of the services you provide.

An organisation that cares about its people and its reputation will be committed to good complaint handling. A positive complaints culture is established in an environment that:

  • recognises the value of complaints
  • has a complaint handling system in place that effectively enables complaints, responds to complaints and learns from complaints - all of which are used to stimulate continuous improvement
  • demonstrates strong staff commitment to effective complaint resolution – at all levels
  • ensures a person-centred approach – this may include engaging service users and staff in the development and review of your complaint handling process, or resolving issues in a way that considers the unique needs of the individual in preference to using a stock-standard response
  • promotes internal and external opportunities for review and/or appeal – and that complainants are actively advised of these mechanisms.

Effective complaints management is only one of the many ways of having an ongoing conversation with people about how your organisation can better meet individual needs and expectations. Some other ways to encourage people to give feedback may include individual goal setting and planning sessions, distributing annual surveys, creating a service user advisory group, installing suggestion boxes in waiting room/reception areas, establishing focus groups or hosting events where people can share their experiences with staff and others.

Other 'Complaints Culture' resources

To explore your organisations complaints culture, please access the links below:

Victorian Disability Services Commissioner

Commonwealth Ombudsman

Western Australia Ombudsman

  • Guidelines on Complaint Handling - provide guidance to agencies on decision making, effective complaint handling systems, conducting investigations and record keeping.

Health and Community Services Complaints Commissioner

  • Responding to a complaint - provides a range of information to assist service providers, including step-by-step instructions and a guide for service providers.


The material found in this bulletin has been included by Funds Management, Disability SA for information purposes only. No claim is made as to the accuracy or authenticity of the content. Disability SA does not accept any liability to any person for the information or advice (or the use of such information or advice) found in this update. Disability SA makes no warranties that the said information and data is free of infection by computer viruses or other contamination. The links are provided only as a convenience. These linked sites are not under the control of Disability SA, and no control or responsibility for the contents of any linked site or any link contained in a linked site are taken by Disability SA. The inclusion of any link does not imply endorsement by Disability SA of the site, or its contents. The information in other associated documents does not necessarily reflect the views of Disability SA.

Contact: Noel Williams

Phone: +61 8 8207 0605


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Department for Communities and Social Inclusion
Last Updated:
28 Oct 2016
Printed on:
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