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ARCHIVED - Quality Service - Effective Complaint Management (Guide XI)

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Much of the material in this report is adapted from Guidelines for Effective Complaint Management, published by the Office of the Ombudsman, New South Wales, Australia and Effective Complaint Systems: Principles and Checklist, published by the Citizen's Charter Complaints Task Force, London, 1993. Many examples of good practice are taken from the Report and Recommendation of the Industry Canada Interdepartmental Working Group on Complaint Resolution Processes, Industry Canada, May 1994 and La gestion des plaintes : un mal nécessaire ou l'opportunité de s'améliorer?, published by the Réseau-qualité fédéral du Québec, 1995. In addition, the Treasury Board Secretariat's Interdepartmental Working Group on Complaints Resolution contributed substantial material, time and effort to this document.


This guide is a collective work by the members of the Interdepartmental Working Group on Complaints Resolution. These individuals include Elaine Leung, Janet Kiff-Macaluso, Brian Glabb, Charles Data Malé, and Jim Martin, Treasury Board of Canada, Secretariat; Andrea Spry, Margret Lapensée and Valérie Cosman, Revenue Canada; Jennifer Birch-Jones, Transport Canada; Dennis N. Brock, Fisheries and Oceans; Chantal Chalifoux, Environment Canada; Adair Crosby, Justice; Peter Findlay and Jacques Fournier, Canadian Centre for Management Development; Jean Flowers and Richard Konchak, Industry Canada; Brian Foley, Citizenship and Immigration Canada; Reg Gatenby, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada; Mary Ann Green, Health Canada; Michelle Hamelin, Human Resources Development Canada and Dave McCulloch, Natural Resources Canada.

The Working Group has benefited from the work done by members of the Complaint Management Working Group from the Réseau-qualité fédéral du Québec. Their report provided good examples and practices of complaint management. The Working Group members are: Jean-François Beaudoin and Marc Millette, Fisheries and Oceans; Bertrand De Serres, Julie Laforest-Garon and Roméric Charest, Human Resources Development Canada; Jeannine Desbiens, Revenue Canada; Sylvie Narbonne, Industry Canada; Patrick Parent, National Defence; Jacques Urbain, Public Works and Government Services Canada.

Additional comments and advice were received from the members of the Service Standards Network; the Assistant Deputy Minister's Committee on Quality Services; the staff of the Innovative and Quality Services Division, which includes Larry Cassie, Chris Dodge, Stephen Giles, Elizabeth Hochster-Brown, Sue Morgan and Ray Scharf; and the staff of the Regulatory Affairs Division, which includes Bill Hingston, Arlene Key and Pat Schening.


An effective complaint management system is an essential part of quality public-sector service. Complaints - and compliments - are valuable sources of information that organizations can use to improve program delivery and service. Under international trade arrangements such as the World Trade Organization Agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement, the government must set up procedures to review complaints about mandatory regulatory services.

This document provides guidelines on complaint management in the delivery of government programs and services, as well as regulatory programs. It does not cover complaints about government policy, specific legislation, and regulations, nor discuss formal appeal procedures that have their own, established rules. In other words, this document deals with complaints about government processes and not with complaints about the content of government policies and laws.

To set complaints in context, government departments exist to serve the public and the public has a right to expect quality programs and services. Most people agree on some basic principles of good public-sector service, including economy, efficiency, effectiveness, fairness, impartiality, prudence, responsiveness and, more recently, continuous improvement.

Many program objectives are based on these principles. These principles do not, however, automatically lead to public satisfaction with government regulations, programs, and services, or with their delivery. Satisfaction improves when the organization knows its clients' expectations, and works with clients to improve services. Many departments, however, serve more than one client group, and groups often have opposing aims.

To improve programs and service, you need to know what clients' expectations are, how well the organization is currently meeting them, and the extent to which the organization can meet them. When clients' expectations exceed resources available or what a particular program is designed to provide, you can use this knowledge to make the necessary adjustments.

Effective complaint management benefits an organization in four important ways:

  • it identifies areas that need changing and allows clients to provide input to service improvement;
  • it gives the organization a second chance to serve and satisfy dissatisfied clients;
  • it provides an opportunity to strengthen public support for the organization; and
  • it helps reduce an organization's workload.

Research suggests that relatively few dissatisfied clients bother to complain. As a result, every complaint received may provide a window into a much larger pool of dissatisfaction. By dealing with the causes of complaints, the organization can further reduce both the number of complaints and dissatisfaction with its program delivery or service.

Dissatisfied clients often speak poorly of an organization. The reputation and credibility of the government, and the public sector generally, may suffer as well. Research shows that dissatisfied clients will tell up to 20 acquaintances about an unresolved problem. On the other hand, clients whose problems are resolved quickly tend to be more loyal to and supportive of the organization than those who do not experience any problems.

Although complaints may generate extra effort initially, they can, in the long run reduce an organization's workload. By dealing with complaints, systemic or recurring problems are dealt with thereby reducing further complaints in this area. How your organization handles complaints will depend on the resources available and on other government and departmental priorities. Organizations with limited resources must deal with complaints efficiently. Using a system to manage complaints is more effective than providing ad hoc responses, which can lead to more serious complaints. A management system also allows you to feed information into the continuous improvement process, so that the organization can prevent similar future complaints.

The following guidelines can be used to build an effective complaint management system. They are not prescriptive, nor are they Treasury Board policy. Use them as advice on ways to meet the particular needs of your department and its clients.

Section I of the document discusses the definition of complaints, the reasons why it is important to define complaints for a particular complaint management system, and the reasons clients make complaints. Section II describes the underlying principles of a complaint management system. It also provides a self-assessment method that you can use to check how well your organization's current systems respond to the principles. Section III gives advice on setting up a complaint management system with examples of best practices. Appendices provide more information on best practices and on good investigative and conciliation practices.


Complaints arise when clients are dissatisfied with a program or service. To find the right type of solution, you need to understand the nature of the client's dissatisfaction. Some complaints are not appropriate for a particular resolution system, and some cannot be resolved. In these cases, you must still treat complainants with respect and fully explain the reasons why your organization cannot accept or resolve their complaint. Where appropriate, you should direct complainants elsewhere for assistance.

What is a complaint?

Organizations should define the nature of complaints covered by each system, and ensure that employees clearly understand the definitions. The scope of an organization's definition of a complaint can vary. If its system is designed to deal with serious grievances about a specific program or service, the organization may select a very narrow definition. However, if the system is designed to give the organization insight into client satisfaction and ways to improve it, a fairly wide definition would be more useful. The following wide definition of a complaint was adapted from Sydney Electric in Australia:

An expression of dissatisfaction with the organization's procedures, charges, employees, agents or quality of service.

A good way to determine if an expression of dissatisfaction is a complaint is to ask, "Does the client's dissatisfaction require the organization to take some action to resolve the matter, other than providing routine services, information or explanations, or processing an appeal under standard policy?"

Determine whether a complaint is eligible for consideration under a particular resolution system before wasting resources on a misunderstanding, a wrongly directed concern, or a frivolous matter.

Types of complaints

Four types of complaints come up frequently in the regulatory area.

The first type involves the complexity and length of processes to introduce or amend federal regulations. You should record these complaints so that you can refer to them when reviewing internal regulatory processes. You should also be aware of ways to speed up the process of changing regulations, such as possible exemption from prepublication in the Canada Gazette. Contact your departmental regulatory coordinator or the Regulatory Affairs Division of the Treasury Board of Canada, Secretariat at (613) 952-3459 if you need further information.

The second type of complaint relates to certain aspects of mandatory regulatory services related to international agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Under these agreements, regulatory departments must have a complaint procedure in place to handle these complaints, and must take corrective action when a complaint is justified.

The third type of complaint relates to the products and services of regulated entities. Product complaints are a large part of the workload of certain departments, such as Health Canada (see example in Appendix A). Organizations may handle this type of complaint differently than service-related complaints. It is important, however, for departments to avoid taking responsibility for issues that only the private sector can resolve.

The fourth type of complaint relates to the actual service delivery. Public, industry and other public sector employees have the right to quality service, and, therefore, have the right to complain if it is not forthcoming. It is important to remember that we are accountable for each service transaction, including the design of the processes supporting the service provider, the physical environment and the manner in which the service, itself, is rendered. Complaints of this nature are not limited to those involved in regulatory areas, but in all aspects of service to the public.

Complaints not covered in this guide

Certain complaints raised by clients are not appropriate for the purpose of systems discussed in this document. Complaints about government policy - as opposed to procedures - and complaints about the contents of existing legislation and regulations are not eligible. These concerns are the responsibility of departmental policy development sectors. Formal appeals made through legislation-based systems, such as the RCMP Public Complaints Commission, are also ineligible complaints for the purposes of this document. Formal systems to handle appeals are in place in many government departments, and appellants must use them where applicable.

Information requests are also not considered complaints, although a complaint may turn out to be an information request. By providing clients more information, the organization can change their expectations and increase their satisfaction without changing the way it delivers a program or service. A poorly handled information request, on the other hand, could turn into a valid complaint.

Why do clients lodge complaints?

The first and obvious answer to this question is that clients are dissatisfied. You should find out what is making them complain - it may not always be the topic of their complaint. Listening is the most effective way to deal with the emotions of a complainant and to understand the root of their concern or frustration. To uncover the real problem and determine an appropriate response, try asking them what resolution they want. Sometimes, complainants can be quite selfless. They realize that something has gone wrong and that, perhaps, the clock cannot be put back as far as they are concerned, but they do not want to see the mistake or fault recur.

Many complaints arise because the organization has not clearly communicated its regulations, programs, policies, and services to its clients. If clients make these types of complaints often, managers should make systemic changes. When people understand what they have a right to expect from the organization, they will have more accurate expectations of service levels, and any complaints they do make will be more focused.

Complaints are not always made for the purpose of pointing out who is right and who is wrong. To resolve a complaint, you may simply need to give more information, provide an explanation, suggest a solution or, in situations where no solution is possible, express understanding and empathy . Where appropriate, you should apologize; be careful, however, in cases of potential liability for possible loss.


To help you determine whether existing complaint management systems are adequate, you will find here the essential features of a good system and the questions you should ask yourselves to evaluate existing systems.

The complaint management system should

  • be easily accessible and well publicized;
  • be available in both official languages;
  • be simple to understand and use;
  • allow speedy handling, with established time limits for action, and should keep people informed of the progress of their complaints;
  • ensure a full and fair investigation of complaints;
  • respect clients' desire for confidentiality;
  • provide an effective response and appropriate redress to complainants; and
  • provide information to management so that services can be improved.

Complaint management systems based on such principles help organizations resolve complaints quickly and result in increased client satisfaction.


Complaint management systems should include easily accessible and well-publicized mechanisms for resolving complaints.

Anyone who has had a problem with a program or service needs to know how to make a complaint, and to whom. This information should be readily available. Clients should find it easy to file a complaint, whatever the circumstances. They should not be charged a fee for lodging a complaint. The organization should encourage people to make their complaints known and should treat them with courtesy.

Ask these questions:

  • Does the organization provide information about how to complain and to whom complaints should be made, including a contact, a phone number, and an address? How is this information disseminated?
  • Has the organization published its standards of service and made them available so that people know what standards of service they may expect?
  • Can clients make complaints in a variety of ways - in person, in writing, by fax, and by telephone?
  • Does the organization provide information about formal independent review bodies, such as relevant judicial bodies?
  • When necessary, has the organization informed clients about ways that a relative or friend might help with a complaint if clients have difficulty expressing themselves?
  • Has the organization designated staff to help people formulate and pursue their complaints?
  • Are there suitable arrangements to allow people with disabilities to complain?
  • Do employees know what to do when they receive a complaint?


In federal government offices located in bilingual regions, complaint mechanisms must be available in both official languages. Clients have a legal right to this. Organizations may consider procedures to deal with complaints made in a language other than English or French where there is a need.

You should make every effort to help people with complaints feel comfortable. These people may be upset, and they will be able to express themselves more clearly and to make the government understand their situation better if they can use the language of their choice. Organizations that deal with clients who feel uncomfortable speaking either official language may consider setting up procedures to help them use other languages to lodge complaints. For example, you could invite complainants to bring a third party to translate, or offer them a list of voluntary translation services.

Ask these questions:

  • Has the organization publicized the locations of bilingual offices?
  • At designated offices, can clients quickly get access to information in the official language of their choice, and to staff who can serve them in their chosen official language?
  • At unilingual offices, are procedures in place to deal with people who are not comfortable in the official language of the office?
  • Are there procedures in place to deal with people who are not comfortable in either official language?


Complaint resolution mechanisms should be simple to understand and use.

Organizations should handle complaints according to clearly established procedures that are easy to understand. Procedures should, where possible, be consistent across different parts of the organization, and should apply to the entire organization. Resolutions, however, will vary according to the type and nature of the complaint.

Ask these questions:

  • Is written guidance on complaint resolution procedures available for
  • - members of the public
    - staff
    - members of Parliament?

  • Are the steps of the procedure set out clearly so that people making complaints know what to do next?
  • Are managers, staff, and clients involved in developing complaint procedures?
  • Does the organization review these procedures regularly? How?
  • Do the procedures set out clear responsibilities for individual staff members at every level?


Complaint management systems should allow employees to handle complaints quickly, and should include established time limits for action that reflect the complexity of various types of problems. They should also allow employees to keep clients informed of the progress of their complaints throughout the process.

Organizations should deal with complaints as quickly as possible. Employees can frequently handle complaints immediately at the point of delivery without using formal complaint procedures. If not, employees should give the complainant a single contact name for the complaint, tell clients when they can expect a response, keep the clients informed of progress on a regular basis, and give clients an explanation if the organization does not meet the deadline. Such information must be realistic. For example, employees could tell clients that the organization meets its deadlines under normal circumstances, but that resource constraints, periods of heavy workload, and other special circumstances may affect service.

Organizations should train all employees who deal with complaints regularly in techniques for handling complaints, and ensure that they are aware of their individual responsibilities. This training could include instruction in negotiation and alternative dispute-resolution skills, and in skills for dealing with difficult people.

Ask these questions:

  • Do procedures allow employees to resolve complaints on the spot if possible, and to provide immediate redress, where appropriate?
  • If employees cannot deal with an appropriate complaint on the spot, do the procedures set out further stages, including steps for conducting a full investigation and for providing a full final reply?
  • Are there time limits for dealing with various types of complaints, and for each step in the procedure, such as acknowledgment, interim reply, and final reply?
  • Does the organization monitor time limits and review them regularly?
  • Do employees keep complainants informed of the progress of their complaint?
  • Are staff trained to handle complaints?
  • Are staff trained in interpersonal skills, including skills for dealing with abusive and threatening behaviour?
  • Does the system allow employees to retrieve information about a complaint quickly?


Complaint management systems should ensure that investigations are full, and fair to all concerned.

If staff cannot resolve complaints immediately, they should analyze the complaints more fully. Line managers should handle most complaints to ensure responsibility and accountability. Procedures should allow for independent review within the organization, however, when a serious (but not criminal) complaint involves an employee. Departments should use existing, formal procedures to deal with problems such as harassment and criminal or corrupt conduct.

The organization should deal fairly with both clients and employees involved in a complaint. The organization should tell clients about the various stages of the complaint system. Clients should be satisfied that the organization has investigated their concerns fully and fairly, even if their complaint is not resolved to their satisfaction.

Ask these questions:

  • Has the organization ensured that all complaints are investigated fully and fairly, from the point of view of both complainants and employees?
  • Has the organization provided for independent review within the organization for major complaints directed at employees?
  • Does the organization deal with all complaints equally, regardless of the status of the persons who complain and who receive the complaint?
  • Are there mediation and adjudication procedures that dissatisfied clients can use?


Complaint management systems should respect people's desire for confidentiality.

In the interests of clients and staff alike, financial or personal details should be kept confidential as far as possible. Consult experts within your organization about confidentiality issues. The Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act outline the legal requirements. Remember that complainants are not bound by these Acts and may disclose any information they receive during the complaint process.

Complaint resolution mechanisms should ensure that neither complainants nor employees involved in complaints are subject to discrimination or retaliation.

Ask these questions:

  • Do complainants know that the organization will deal with their complaints in confidence?
  • Do employees know that they should treat complaints in confidence?
  • Does the procedure make clear to employees that clients should not be treated adversely as a result of making a complaint?
  • Are employees assured confidentiality?
  • Do employees know that they will not be treated adversely as a result of referring a client's complaint to the complaints process?


Complaint management systems should allow employees to provide an effective response to eligible complaints, and to provide a redress, when appropriate.

Organizations should address complaints directly and, where appropriate, remove the source of the problem in order to improve service. Redresses should be readily available, appropriate to the nature of the complaint, and consistent. You should apologize when appropriate, exercising due caution where potential liability for possible loss exists.

Ask these questions:

  • Does the procedure guarantee a response to all complaints?
  • Does the organization ensure that it has fully addressed all the points at issue?
  • Do responses explain to clients who are still dissatisfied that no further redress is available within the complaint system and, if appropriate, how they may pursue the issue?
  • Are there clearly established redresses for all types of complaints?
  • Does the organization provide information about forms of redress?
  • Do employees express regrets spontaneously, regardless of the nature of the complaint?

Complaint management systems need to provide information to management so that services can be improved.

Complaints are a positive form of feedback and a means of establishing better customer relations. They are a general invitation to seek feedback from the public with the intention of improving services. The message to the public will then be that the organization values what they have to say, good or bad. The message to the staff is that getting complaints need not be a negative experience: management is not concerned with apportioning blame but rather with using the feedback in a constructive fashion. Organizations can use both complaints and compliments to improve services and increase public satisfaction. You should analyze trends in complaints and take appropriate action.

Ask these questions:

  • Is there a system for recording complaints?
  • Does the organization monitor the recording system?
  • Is information about complaints and compliments regularly fed into central management information systems?
  • Does the organization use information about complaints to monitor services provided through contractors?
  • Has the organization set performance targets for handling complaints?
  • Does the organization monitor client satisfaction with complaint and redress procedures?
  • Does the organization monitor the effectiveness of staff training in handling complaints?
  • Do managers include information on the handling of complaints and compliments in their regular reviews of staff performance?

Reporting back

Learning the lessons from complaints is important; but so is demonstrating that the organization has done so. A positive outcome or improvement in service resulting from handling complaints may boost the public's confidence in government services and programs in the long term. It is therefore important to publicly report on complaints analysis and to show where this has led to improvements.

Ask these questions:

  • Has the organization made service improvements after analyzing problems highlighted by complaints?
  • Does the organization publish information about complaints and their resolution, and make that information available to clients?


Departments implementing programs, regulations, and services will interact with clients. Complaints will be part of that interaction. If existing complaint resolution systems fall short of the basic principles described above, or if no system exists to deal with complaints, departments will not be giving good quality service and management will be ignoring a valuable source of information.

To help you improve existing systems and develop new ones, the following section offers a prototypical model and advice on the different elements of a well-managed complaint resolution system. However, you should design your system to meet the specific needs of your department or program.


No single complaint management system would perform well in all departments and agencies of the federal government. Systems must respond to specific regulatory environments, programs, and services. This section provides advice on the basics of a system, greater detail on specific parts, and examples of best practices from within federal departments and agencies. Appendix A contains additional descriptions of complaint resolution systems that respond to specific classes of complaints. Appendices B and C give more detailed advice on good investigative and conciliation practices.

The complaint resolution system has two parts: the management system and the complaint handling system. The bare bones of the model appear as diagrams in the next two subsections, so that you can see the more detailed advice on various elements in context. The numbers on the diagrams refer to the numbers in parentheses in the paragraphs of the text that follows the diagrams.

1. The Complaint Management System

The following diagram illustrates the elements of the management system, starting with developing a definition of complaint for the specific system. Definitions were discussed in Section I of this document.

Develop a process for lodging complaints (1)

This process should address the basic questions of how, where, when, and to whom complaints should be made. It is important to let clients know whom they should approach if they wish to complain in person and where they should write if they wish to be more formal. It is very helpful to provide phone numbers. Some large organizations provide a central complaints officer or a toll-free number to help clients get a speedy resolution to their complaints.

Examples of Best Practices

The RCMP Public Complaints Commission, a formal panel, offers a toll-free number for registering complaints. Informal complaint processes could use a similar system.

Contact: Executive Director RCMP Public Complaints Division Toll Free: 1-800-267-6637

Industry Canada's Corporations Directorate notifies all clients of its service standards and invites them to inform the department when service does not meet the standards.

If clients do not like a statutory decision, they often have a right of appeal to, or a right to initiate an action before, a court of law. Employees tell clients about these rights when they give clients the results of decisions.

Contact: Director General Corporations Directorate Industry Canada (613) 941-2837

Veterans Affairs Canada distributes a brochure to its clients called At Your Service. It contains the department's services and service standards, and outlines the actions clients should take if they have complaints.

Contact: Portfolio Quality Services Corporate Planning Division Veterans Affairs Canada (902) 566-8021

Prioritize complaints (2)

Not all complaints are of the same importance to an organization. When an organization cannot immediately handle all the complaints it receives, it should prioritize them. For instance, it may consider complaints related to public health and safety concerns, humanitarian issues, and political issues to be high priorities.

Establish procedures for special cases (3)

You may need to treat some types of complaints in special ways. For example, departmental staff will generally be required to notify their minister if a complaint concerns corrupt conduct, and the organization may automatically refer complaints related to criminal action to the police. You may need special arrangements for keeping such complaints confidential.

Figure 1: The Complaint Management System

Figure 1

Some complaints should simply be referred to certain sections of the organization. For instance, complaints of financial impropriety may be referred to the internal audit section.

Example of Best Practice

Revenue Canada set up the Problem Resolution Program to deal with high-profile problems. Problem resolution staff in tax services offices and tax centres resolve problems that cannot be handled through regular complaint resolution channels. They locate the sources of administrative problems, solve the problems, and ensure that steps are taken to prevent their recurrence. The program allows the department to monitor and analyze the nature and frequency of complaints, which helps the department anticipate and respond to taxpayers' ever-changing needs and demands.

Contact: Service Quality and Analysis Division Client Services Directorate Assessment and Collections Branch, (613) 957-9354

Clearly define responsibilities for dealing with complaints (4)

The complaint management system must clearly define who is responsible for dealing with complaints at each stage. It may be the responsibility of all staff to deal with first-stage complaints, or it may be more practical to designate a special officer in each section or branch. Wherever the responsibility lies, those people must be clear about what their role is in dealing with a complaint. More senior staff should deal with complaints that cannot be resolved immediately.

Provide remedies (5)

As well as defining responsibilities, the complaint management system should specify the authority that employees have to take remedial action. The system should include a checking mechanism so that the department can ensure that staff have provided remedies, where appropriate. As far as possible, you should ensure that, at the end of the process, complainants are in the position they would have been in if nothing had gone wrong. To do this, you may simply need to provide the desired service. Sometimes you cannot completely fix the mistake, so you should consider providing some alternative remedy. The organization's approach to remedies should be consistent.

You will not be able to remedy or redress some complaints. In those cases, explain the situation clearly to the complainant, so that the lack of redress does not cause the complaint to escalate.

Develop service standards (6)

Research shows that clients are more likely to be satisfied and to view the organization positively if the organization resolves their complaints quickly. Time limits for each step in the complaint management procedure - including initial acknowledgment, response to internal requests for information, and final response to the complainant - will encourage employees to resolve complaints quickly. Response time will depend on the complexity and seriousness of the complaint. If some form of investigation is necessary, staff should tell the complainant and keep him or her informed at regular intervals.

Example of Best Practice

The Spectrum Management Service of Industry Canada has published service standards for its licensing activities. A brochure distributed to clients outlines the objectives of the Service, gives detailed standards for the quality and timeliness of each part of the Service, and describes what the Service will do if it cannot meet its standards. If clients are not satisfied, the Service invites them to complain to the employee who served them or to a supervisor, and promises to respond to the complaint within five working days.

Contact: Chief Spectrum Control Spectrum Management Operations (613) 990-4745

Control and monitor the complaints system (7)

Large departments may assign overall responsibility for managing the complaints system to one person or group. This person or group ensures that the system works; produces regular management reports on the frequency and nature of complaints; and provides useful information derived from complaints to relevant sections of the organization to prevent the recurrence of problems. Some successful organizations have conducted follow-up surveys to find out if complainants were satisfied with the organization's response to their problem.

Small organizations may not be able to hire a full-time person to manage the complaint system. They should base their decision on the volume and nature of complaints they receive. Small organizations may want to use existing centres such as Reference Canada or Canada Business Service Centres to process complaints initially.

Example of Best Practice

Veterans Affairs Canada has established health care committees to review certain complaints informally. The process is flexible. Committee members, who are medical or counseling professionals, review each case on its own merit. The committees meet frequently and their membership is stable, so their decisions are consistent.

Contact: Director General Health Care Division Veterans Affairs Canada (902) 566-8302

Report outcomes (8)

Always consider who needs to know about the information coming from complaints. As well as reporting these results to higher levels of authority, you may wish to provide them to other people who may encounter similar situations. Do not forget confidentiality and the legal provisions for access to information.

Internal reporting on complaints should

  • clearly identify the problem that arose;
  • identify causes, including both systemic elements and personal factors;
  • estimate the likelihood of recurrence;
  • propose strategies to prevent or limit recurrence;
  • include a benefit-cost analysis of any system change; and
  • make recommendations for any necessary system changes.

External reporting can be a powerful tool of public accountability. By publishing generalized complaints - and the results of those complaints - in a public report, you can tell the public about the effectiveness of your organization's complaint management system and show how it compares to those of other organizations.

Such a report should briefly describe the complaint management system and include some basic data. The complaints could be broken down into the following three major categories:

  • service delivery, which includes such matters as

- rudeness
- delay
- failure to take action
- incorrect or inappropriate action
- mistakes
- inefficiency
- failure to reply to correspondence and
- failure to give reasons;

  • misconduct of a serious nature, such as complaints about actions that are

- unreasonable, unjust, or oppressive
- improperly discriminatory
- based on improper motives, irrelevant grounds or 
   irrelevant considerations or
- based on mistakes of law or inaccurate facts; and

  • misconduct that is

- corrupt in nature or
- contrary to law.

The report could also include

- the number of complaints and action taken to resolve the complaints and to prevent similar complaints from happening in the future;

- a carry-over figure for matters unresolved at report date; and

- a breakdown by the methods used to resolve complaints, such as conciliation, investigation, external means, mediation or court.

2. The Complaint Handling System

The second part of the model covers the detailed elements of a complaint handling system, from determining whether a complaint is appropriate for a particular system to determining a final solution.

Develop a tiered structure for resolving complaints (9)

While there should be as few stages as possible, a good system provides at least three levels of review.

  • First stage: The intake officer screens the complaint and registers it if it is appropriate. Then front-line staff attempt to resolve it.
  • Second stage: When clients are still dissatisfied, a more senior official or a complaints officer investigates their complaints and reports the results to them.
  • Third stage: When the organization cannot resolve the complaint internally, you should consider using mutually acceptable, alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. These include mediation, which helps the parties move toward a mutually agreeable solution while remaining in control of the process. If this is not possible, a third party could mediate or arbitrate the matter.

Document complaints (10)

Some organizations may not consider it useful, necessary or cost effective to formally register complaints. However, client complaints provide valuable information that organizations can use to improve service. A record will help the organization identify areas where service levels do not match client expectations. Only genuine complaints should be recorded.

Registration systems vary in their complexity and expense. If there are a large number of complaints and the organization needs information in different formats and levels of detail, an electronic system may yield a higher net benefit than a manual system. You can use a software package to create a registration system on departmental electronic networks. Alternatively you can simply ask complainants or intake officers to fill out a brief form, and then save the information in a database on an electronic network. Although you may be tempted to try to capture as much information as possible, you will undoubtedly encourage departmental staff to use the system rather than bypass it if you keep it simple and easy to use.

Develop a format for describing complaints

Staff will need a simple process for recording complaints made by phone or in person. They could use paper-based or computer-based systems. Initially, the client should not be required to fill out a form. If the complaint proceeds to the next stage, the client should put the complaint in writing. Larger organizations may wish to establish a special format for this process. Ask complainants to provide details about what they believe is wrong and, if appropriate, about the type of resolution they want. Be careful when asking clients what redress would satisfy them, so that you do not raise expectations above what the organization can reasonably deliver.

Advise the complainant of alternatives (11)

If they cannot resolve a client's complaint on the spot, employees should tell the client about any alternative remedies. For instance, clients may have the right to complain to a supervisor or to a third party. Although it may be difficult to ask a complainant to go to your supervisor, providing the complainant with alternatives is an important aspect of resolving complaints.

Investigate further (12)

You should use different resolution processes for different types of complaints. If you cannot solve the problem right away, assess the relative seriousness of the complaint to determine the right type of process to use. Conciliation is best for less serious cases and, perhaps, as a first stage for more serious complaints that do not involve criminal activity.

Figure II

The organization should establish a basic procedure for investigating more complex or serious complaints. See Appendix B for advice on good investigative practices.

The people responsible for resolving simple grievances should be given guidance and training on ways to conciliate complaints. See Appendix C for advice on conciliating complaints.

Example of Best Practice

Justice Canada has developed an advisory paper on selection criteria for resolving disputes. According to this paper, dispute resolutions can be used when

  • safeguards of the courts are not needed to protect the interests and rights of the parties;
  • parties are willing to consider settlement; and
  • settlement of the dispute does not affect the interests or rights of individuals who are not parties to the dispute.

Contact: Dispute Resolution Project, Department of Justice (613) 941-4111.


You may be able to use conciliation to resolve less serious complaints that do not allege criminal or corrupt conduct. In this way, you can avoid costly and time-consuming investigation processes. To achieve agreement or some other solution to a complaint, you may simply need to explain why action was taken in a particular way; to explain the procedural requirements of a situation; to offer advice; or to apologize when the organization has not provided a satisfactory level of service.

An organization can reduce amount of workload, save money and achieve better relations with clients if it can resolve complaints without resorting to formal investigative or appeal processes.

To improve client satisfaction with regulatory programs and other government services, increase public confidence in government, and foster a more professional and effective organization, try to prevent problems from recurring. In other words, use a problem-solving approach to focus on preventing complaints as well as on resolving complaints.

Organizations should continue to fully investigate more serious complaints. Where criminal or corrupt conduct is alleged, specialized agencies such as the police should conduct the investigation.

However, when employees make honest mistakes or errors of judgment, focus on resolving and preventing future complaints rather than on proving guilt or innocence.

Clients and the public are much more likely to have confidence in the organization if it listens to complaints and deals with them quickly and appropriately. Do not forget that many complaints arise from mistakes, misconceptions, and misunderstandings, for which there may well be shared responsibility. You must resolve these complaints to prevent similar problems from arising in the future.


Best Practice for Specific Classes of Complaints

The Health Protection Branch (HPB) of Health Canada has a four-step complaint resolution system for complaints about food and drug products. It is founded on the principles of professional judgment, courteous service, and risk determination, and is based on sound science. It recognizes that the department may not be able to resolve all complaints, and that some complaints are unverifiable.

Step 1: Receiving the complaint

Employees obtain as much information about the complaint as possible in order to evaluate it. They record the name and address of the complainant so he or she can be contacted.

Step 2: Evaluating the complaint

HPB makes a decision about the complaint based on the answers to the following questions.

  • Is the complaint valid?
  • Is it outside its jurisdiction?
  • Does it require further investigation?
  • Is it unverifiable?

Step 3: Acting on the complaint

  • Invalid complaints: HPB informs the complainant of the decision.
  • Complaint outside of HPB jurisdiction: HPB informs the complainant of the appropriate agency to complain to, and forwards the complaint to that agency.
  • Unverifiable complaint: HPB informs the complainant and files the complaint for information.
  • Further investigation of complaint required: HPB determines the priority of the investigation. Depending on the risk presented by the non-compliant product, HPB may decide to investigate immediately, or to wait for a scheduled inspection. Once it has set the priority, HPB will investigate the complaint. The Branch may meet or call the complainant for more details, analyze the suspect product or a similar one, determine storage and sale conditions at retail and wholesale levels, and determine conditions of manufacturing or importation.

Step 4: Resolving the complaint

If the complaint is valid and HPB knows the source of the problem, the Branch takes appropriate enforcement action. The Branch will inform the complainant of the action it has taken. If, after an investigation, HPB determines that the complaint is unverifiable or invalid, it closes the file and informs the complainant of the actions taken and the results.


Good Investigative Practice

Most complaints can be dealt with quickly and efficiently. However, where a more substantial inquiry is required, the following guidance may be helpful to investigating officers. The officer who makes the final decision about the complaint should not carry out the investigation.

  • Find out whether the organization has received any previous complaints from this person.
  • Contact the complainant to

- clarify the complaint;

- where appropriate, clarify the outcome sought, although this may change during the course of the investigation;

- check whether the complainant needs support of any kind. The person may have poor sight or hearing, or a language difficulty. Find out what he or she needs to understand the discussion properly; and

- explain the investigation procedure.

  • Become knowledgeable on the relevant legal and administrative background of the complaint.
  • Assess whether the complaint management system is the most appropriate way to handle this complaint. Consider alternative possible procedures, such as

- appeal to tribunals;

- legal action; and

- police involvement.

  • Consider whether conciliation is appropriate (see Appendix C, Conciliating a complaint). If it is not, discuss alternatives with the complainant.
  • Consider whether the complaint could be resolved without further investigation.
  • If the complaint concerns an action proposed by the organization, consider whether the action should be deferred while the complaint is investigated.
  • Obtain originals of all relevant documents, not copies. These may include files, log books, and time sheets.
  • Use the files to establish the relevant sequence of events, as well as the names of employees most directly involved in the complaint.
  • Prepare questions for each person to be interviewed.
  • In the interview

- use open, not closed, questions;

- use neutral, not leading, questions;

- do not express opinions in words or by body language; and

- ask single, not multiple, questions.

  • Inform all those to be interviewed that a friend, union representative, or counsel may accompany them, provided that the friend does not supervise the interviewee. Explain the complaint clearly to them.
  • Consider whether you need an observer for a particularly difficult interview.
  • Conduct interviews in an informal and relaxed manner, but persist in your questions if necessary. Do not be afraid to ask the same question twice. Make notes of each answer.
  • Try to separate hearsay evidence from fact by asking interviewees how they know a particular fact.
  • Deal with conflicting evidence by seeking corroborative evidence. If this is not available, then, as an exceptional measure, consider organizing a meeting between parties.
  • At the end of the interview, summarize the main points covered by the interviewee and ask if he or she has anything to add.
  • Make a formal record of the interview from your written notes as soon as possible after the interview, while your memory is fresh. Never put off this task for more than a day.
  • If appropriate, make an unannounced visit to the establishment that is the subject of the complaint to check normal practices.
  • Draft a report setting out the evidence you have obtained, preferably without including your own opinions. Circulate this for comment to all those interviewed, including the complainant, unless there are special reasons not to do so.
  • Consider comments and amend the report as necessary. Add conclusions and, if appropriate, suggest a remedy for the complainant.


Conciliating a Complaint

Conciliation is an informal process in which a passive third party is positioned between the parties to create a channel for communications, usually by conveying messages between parties who are unwilling to meet face-to-face, to identify common ground and to eventually re-establish direct communications between the parties. The term is often interchanged with mediation; however, conciliation involves a more passive third party. The process can be readily combined with mediation.

(From Short glossary of dispute resolution terms, The Law Society of Upper Canada, July 1992.)

Conciliation can be an effective way to deal with relatively minor complaints and matters at an early stage. Be aware that a client's question, if not answered properly, may lead to dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction may turn into a complaint. A minor complaint can turn into a major problem, depending on how employees handle it. Someone other than the person who is at the centre of the complaint usually someone senior to that person should undertake conciliation. Depending on the nature of the complaint, departments could ask a third party from a disinterested department or the private sector to conciliate.

Some people are better at conciliation than others, due to temperament, training, or experience. Structure helps. Certain questions that a conciliator can ask may help all parties reach a satisfactory resolution.

Do not conciliate a particular complaint if

  • the facts are likely to be in dispute, despite investigation;
  • disciplinary action is a possible outcome;
  • questions of precedent for the organization may be involved.

The time frame may also be relevant. Sometimes, passage of time may help resolve a complaint by giving the complainant time to cool down, and giving the organization time to obtain advice and to investigate alternatives.

How to conciliate a complaint

  • Listen to what the person has to say.
  • If the complaint is not clear, ask in a non-judgmental way what happened.
  • Ask, "What do you want to happen? or "What do you want to be done?"
  • Decide on a mutually agreeable course of action to adopt.
  • Take this action.
  • Report on the process and the outcome.

How to increase the likelihood of a successful conciliation

  • Explain why the organization took the action that is the subject of the complaint, referring to the relevant legislation and the organization's procedures.
  • Apologize if the organization did not deliver appropriate service.
  • Take action. This may involve delivering the service, counselling staff, or taking other creative measures.

What if the conciliation is appropriate but unsuccessful?

  • It will not always be possible to satisfy complainants or to agree to all the terms of conciliation that they want. If so, further action may not be necessary. Use common sense to determine what is reasonable or achievable.
  • Retain all conciliation results. You could include them in a public report, with due regard for confidentiality.



The Citizen's Charter Complaints Task Force. Effective Complaint Systems: Principles and Checklist. Citizen's Charter Unit, Cabinet Office, United Kingdom, 1993.

The Citizen's Charter Complaints Task Force. Good Practice Guide. Citizen's Charter Unit, Cabinet Office, United Kingdom, June 1995.

The Citizen's Charter Complaints Task Force. Putting Things Right. Citizen's Charter Unit, Cabinet Office, United Kingdom, June 1995.

Department of Justice. Dispute Resolution Reference Guide. Ottawa, June 1995.

Ombudsman for New South Wales. Guidelines for Effective Complaint Management. Government of New South Wales, Australia, date unknown.

Réseau-qualité fédéral du Québec. La gestion des plaintes: un mal nécessaire ou l'opportunité de s'améliorer? Rapport du Groupe de travail sur la gestion des plaintes, R-QFQ, 1995.

Veterans Affairs. At Your Service. Ottawa, 1995