What is a complaint?

It can be difficult to distinguish between complaints and other types of contact from members of the public.

The Ombudsman's preferred definition is:


'An implied or express statement of dissatisfaction where a response is sought, reasonable to expect or legally required.'

This definition is broader than, but consistent with, the definition in Australian and New Zealand Standard Guidelines for complaint management in organisations AS/NZS 10002:2014.

It includes dissatisfaction with an agency or its contractor's:

  • customer services

  • actions or decisions

  • inaction or delay

  • policy or processes.

It recognises that complaints that are outside an agency's area of responsibility should be treated as complaints in accordance with the 'no wrong door' principle and should be resolved by referring the person to the correct complaint pathway.


'Feedback is a compliment, criticism, comment or suggestion where a response is not sought, or not reasonable to expect.'

The key difference between complaints and critical feedback is the reasonable expectation of a response. Like complaints, it is important to ensure that feedback can be analysed to identify opportunities for improvement.

What is not a complaint?

An initial request for a service or action. However, subsequent requests may be an implicit complaint about service, inaction or delay.

Statements about an overall opinion are generally not complaints, unless a response or resolution is expected, or should reasonably be provided.

Requests for information or explanations. However, repeated requests for explanations may be implied complaints about the quality of services, decisions or reasons previously provided.

Requests for updates are not generally complaints. However, some requests for updates may be implied complaints about delay or inaction.

Formal review requests under a legislated internal review schemes. However, agencies may choose to record initial contact as a complaint before referring these complaints to formal review pathways.

Some common complaints


  • Accessibility of services
  • Quality of services
  • Treatment by staff

Actions or decisions

  • Incorrect or unfair
  • Reasons not properly explained

Inaction or delay

  • Not responding to requests or applications
  • Delay providing services
  • Inaction or delays not explained

Policy and processes

  • Disagreement with policy or process
  • Not properly explained