Making Complaints Count: Supporting complaints handling in the NHS and UK Government Departments (Executive Summary)


This report follows an invitation from the House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs to explore the ‘state of local complaints handling’ across the NHS and UK Government departments.

The term ‘complaint’ can cover a wide range of circumstances. Within the NHS, sometimes serious issues are raised that trigger significant patient safety concerns. Such cases should be investigated by the organisation under the Serious Incident Framework, rather than through the NHS complaints process.

Our report focuses specifically on the NHS complaints system. We do, however, recognise that some of the expectations we raise about the complaint process may also be relevant to how NHS Organisations approach patient safety investigations. This is particularly so for the issues we highlight about training and capacity of complaints staff to carry out investigations in their remit effectively, and the need for a more open and reflective culture towards learning and accountability. Our report makes no recommendations in this space, but we hope our research is of use to those bodies responsible for the Serious Incident Framework and any future considerations for how that could be improved.

Our full Insight report draws on evidence taken from interviews carried out with a wide range of individuals and organisations who have first-hand experience of how the NHS and UK Government departments approach complaints. It also incorporates a review of a wide range of other research reports and over 300 of our own investigation reports. These which capture feedback from complainants about their experience of raising a complaint, and how each organisation handled it. This evidence provides a rich source of learning for what complainants expect and whether these were met in their case.

Our research shows a broad consensus that the complaints system needs reform and strengthening, and that there are three core weaknesses.

  • There is no single vision for how staff are expected to handle and resolve complaints. Too many organisations provide their own view on ‘good practice’ and staff are left confused as to which one to follow, often leading to variable experiences for those who complain
  • Staff do not get consistent access to complaints handling training to support them in what is a complex role, which should be recognised as a professional skill. When staff do get training, the quality and consistency of what is covered is variable.
  • Public bodies too often see complaints negatively, not as a learning tool that can be used to improve their service. Complaints staff feel they are not valued or supported by senior leaders in their organisation and lack the resources to carry out their role effectively.

Our research strongly suggests that the current complaints system is not meeting the needs of the public. Our proposal to create a Complaint Standards Framework, modelled on the approach taken in devolved nations and Ireland, is our first step to address this. It has been widely welcomed.

This new Complaint Standards Framework will provide a consistency and support to frontline staff, as well as assisting senior leaders to promote a positive culture of learning from complaints. It provides the basis for a central training platform for staff to give them the support and development they need, and to recognise that handling and resolving complaints is a professional skill.

Our insight report is structured in line with the four key areas that the draft Complaint Standards Framework covers.

Download the full report, Making Complaints Count: Supporting complaints handling in the NHS and UK Government Departments [PDF 632KB]