News Opinion

The power of complaints to improve services

Michael King, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman

Care providers who approach customer complaints with an open mind, can reap the rewards of improved services – and potentially happier service users.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman is the last stage for unresolved complaints about adult care services. Everyone can come to us for an independent review of their complaint about their council or care provider.

Through years of helping people, we know it can take courage for someone to come forward and complain about their care. But it also requires humility from a care provider to listen with an open mind when faced with criticism.

Our evidence shows that those providers who embrace complaints can unlock a wealth of learning. This can be used to help improve the quality of care, which everyone can benefit from.

Our investigations show many examples of this. Last year we made more than 1,300 recommendations for councils and care providers to take action when they had got something wrong. In all but one case, councils and care providers reacted positively and did what we recommended. A mature attitude from staff and managers to acknowledging fault and putting things right made this possible.

Complaints can also be an early warning sign of more significant issues. Of our 1,300 recommendations, more than 15% were steps to improve practice and procedures to improve things for people other than those that complained. Often small, sensible steps, like training staff on what to do when someone has a fall or keeping accurate notes on dietary intake. But steps that have a big impact.

The key thing is that this kind of intelligence is freely available in complaints, but only presents itself to those willing to put the mirror up to themselves and learn from their mistakes.

How to unlock the power of complaints

The job care workers do in encouraging people to talk about their experiences is critical. If residents feel their concerns will be listened to and acted upon, they will be more comfortable raising them at an early stage.

But strong leadership is just as vital to instill a true learning culture from complaints. Leaders can empower care workers to have those difficult conversations while knowing they are supported to act quickly and confidently. Leaders can also champion the constructive approach to complaints, from the top to the bottom of the organisation, and actively own the responsibility for capturing the learning at the board level.

There are a few practical things that leaders should do to harness the value of complaints:

  • Have accessible complaints procedures – Is it made clear to residents how they can make a complaint, and would they feel assured that care would not be compromised? Complaints processes should be clear, in simple language and visible to service users and their families in a range of settings; for example, leaflets on noticeboards and prominent information on websites
  • Signpost to advocacy support and the Ombudsman – advise service users who they may turn to for independent support. And make sure they know they have a right to come to us at the end of the process
  • Senior responsibility for complaints – the proprietor or others should support the registered manager, by publishing an annual review of complaints and overseeing learning outcomes

How the Ombudsman can help

We have a range of support tools on our website to help care providers with better complaint handling. These include:

–       Template documents to adapt, such as complaint procedures and complaint response letters

–       Leaflets you can print about who we are

–       Subscription to e-newsletters on the latest social care news

–       Information about our good complaint handling courses for care providers


For more information visit


Edel Harris





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