This section explains and provides background to the meaning of key terms and principles used in this report.


Follow these links for the definition of complaint and guidance on how to identify a complaint.


A person, organisation or representative who makes a complaint.

Complaint handling System

All policies, procedures, practices, officers and resources an agency deploys to manage complaints.


An accessible complaint handling system makes it as easy as possible for everyone in the diverse Australian community to find and use. An accessible system will reflect the preferences and needs of the community, including people who may otherwise experience difficulty due to age, disability, language, geographical, health, or cultural reasons. In both design and delivery, an accessible system will actively seek to reduce access barriers. For guidance on designing an accessible system, see DESIGN Principle 1.

Assisted referral

Assisted referrals are where an agency actively helps a person access an alternative complaints pathway, for example by a direct transfer or by providing the persons details (with consent) to another agency or organisation using email, telephone or another data exchange method.

Providing a complainant with the contact details of another agency or organisation for the complainant to initiate contact with them is not an assisted referral.


A system is confidential if it complies with relevant privacy legislation and principles. Protecting privacy is essential for maintaining trust in your system and good communication with complainants.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has published information about confidentiality requirements under Australian Privacy Principles .

Some positive steps to protect complainant confidentiality include:

  • using a unique identification number for each complaint

  • ensuring access to the complaints database can be restricted to authorised staff

  • accepting anonymous complaints

  • only disclosing identity or personal details to other staff where necessary

  • de-identifying complaints in complaint reporting where possible.


A complaint handling system that meets the better practice described in this guide will be an effective system. It will handle complaints in a way that is proportionate and appropriate to the nature of the complaint, resolving simple complaints quickly and assigning more time and resources to resolving complex and serious complaints.

Indicators of effectiveness include:

  • the system is accessible to all users, with complaints received from all groups that may experience complaint barriers

  • complaints are identified and referred to the complaint handling system

  • complaints are resolved within reasonable time frames

  • appropriate outcomes and remedies are provided

  • overall complainant satisfaction is high

  • complaints are quality assured and reviewed

  • staff are well trained, empowered and supported

  • meaningful complaint data is captured and used to improve continuously.


Complaint handling systems must treat and be seen to treat, its users fairly, both in its processes and outcomes. Perceptions of fairness can be just as important as actual fairness in building trust and confidence in your system.

The key to fairness is understanding the power imbalance between your agency and your complainants.

A fair system is one where complaint handling actions, decisions and process are:

  • respectful

  • impartial

  • confidential

  • transparent

  • procedurally fair

  • accessible

  • responsive.

All of these elements of a fair system are necessary to meet reasonable community expectations and some are needed to comply with legal requirements.

Fair systems:

  • are accessible and responsive

  • treat people with respect

  • are open and transparent about process and reasons for decisions

  • give people a chance to provide information and respond to adverse information

  • make impartial, evidence based decisions that are lawful, consistent and reasonable

  • have a process for reviewing decisions

  • protect confidentiality.


Impartiality means coming to a complaint with an open mind and without any preconceptions about the outcome. It is vital to fair complaint handling and critically important to maintaining public confidence in the complaint handling process. Without it, an agency may have difficulty maintaining the credibility and therefore the success, of its complaint handling system.

Complaint handling staff should not be defensive about their agency or its staff and complainants should not be obliged to prove they are right or the agency is wrong. A version of events from agency staff should not be given extra weight or be presumed to be correct. Take care when responding to someone who has complained multiple times. Resist the temptation to dismiss further complaints and assess new complaints on their merits.

Staff should be trained and encouraged to disclose conflicts of interest that might affect or appear to affect their handling of the complaint. Complaints about staff should be assessed and investigated by someone other than the staff member.


Agencies should use complaint insights and data to foster continuous improvement in program administration and complaint handling.

Complaints can be a rich source of information for an organisation to draw on to fix systemic issues and continually improve the user experience.


Integration means having clear lines of responsibility, communication and referral processes between internal business areas, and externally with contractors and other organisations. It means incorporating complaint handling in core business activities.

Integration is necessary because properly responding to complaint issues will often require action to be taken by a business area and in some cases an external organisation. Benefits of integration include:

  • stronger complaint handling culture

  • more timely referral and resolution of complaints

  • reduced risk of double handling

  • better sharing and use of complaint insights

  • improved experience for complainants and staff.

No wrong door

No wrong door is a concept that acknowledges it can be hard for people to know where they should direct their complaint. Agencies should work collaboratively, to help people find the right complaint pathway and avoid people getting stuck, frustrated or lost on a referral roundabout.

To the extent possible, complaints that fall outside an agency's area of responsibility should be recorded as a complaint and resolved by assisting the person to access the correct complaint pathway as seamlessly as possible.

For agencies with high levels of cross over complaints, the ideal to strive for is a referral system where, rather than sending a person to a new complaint pathway, complaints are transferred directly to other agencies (for example, under a memorandum of understanding).

Procedural fairness

Procedural fairness is about the fairness of the process used to reach a decision. It is not about the substantive or perceived fairness of the decision itself.

Administrative law sets minimum requirements for procedural fairness. Community expectations, and general principles of good administration require a higher standard of fairness in complaint handling processes. The Commonwealth Ombudsman expects agencies to adhere to this higher standard.

Complainants are likely to be more accepting of unfavourable outcomes when procedural fairness is high and conversely, relatively dissatisfied with favourable outcomes when procedural fairness is low. Complaint handlers are also more likely to reach a fair and correct decision if the procedure of reaching that decision is fair.

In a procedurally fair system:

  • decisions are evidence based and free of bias

  • reasons for decisions are provided to complainants, including the evidence on which the decision is based and reasons for not accepting complainant's assertions or evidence

  • communication with complainants is clear, and preferably in a form that the particular complainant can best understand

  • complainants are given an opportunity to respond to a decision, and if applicable provide further information to support their complaint, before a complaint is finalised

  • there is a process for complainants to seek review of how their complaint was handled.


Reflection is the necessary precursor to improvement. Reflective systems are self-critical and ensure complaint handling processes and complaint data are regularly reviewed and analysed.

Reflective systems ensure effective actioning of individual complaints, and can identify trends, systemic issues and opportunities for improvement.

Reflective systems:

  • embed a culture of non-defensive self-reflection

  • encourage staff and managers to observe and report insights from their complaint handling

  • have formal processes for reviewing complaint data and processes

  • analyse qualitative and quantitative complaint data.


People raising complaints want to be taken seriously. They need to be treated with respect, listened to and kept informed. For many people, the complaint journey and their treatment along the way, can be just as important as achieving the remedy they initially seek.

Respect is more likely to come about when recruitment and training processes for complaint handlers emphasise the importance of soft skills such as good communication and empathy. This is because respect requires that complainant concerns are listened to, acknowledged and taken seriously.


A responsive system is one that can react quickly and positively to meet the needs of its users, adapt within changing operating environment and continuously improve how it conducts its business.

External and internal factors, such as budgetary pressures and the introduction of new policies, programs, or services, can change the volume and type of complaints a system must respond to. In turn, this may result in individuals with differing needs accessing the system with complaints about new and unique subject matter.

A responsive complaint handling system recognises that new challenges may arise and is set up to promptly identify new issues and action necessary adjustments in a timely and flexible way.


A timely system actions complaints within benchmark timeframes in line with reasonable community expectations.

Timely actioning of complaints means that the time taken to complete the assessment, and if applicable the investigation, of a complaint is proportionate to the particular issue and the shortest timeframe possible while ensuring a proper outcome is delivered.

Better practice systems make timely complaint handling a priority and reports regularly on performance to supervisors and the executive.

A complaint handling system that can promptly action complaints is better able to:

  • ensure efficient use of resources

  • build and maintain trust in the organisation

  • provide complainants with good outcomes.

For step by step guidance on how to achieve timely resolution of complaints, see DESIGN Step 2.

For guidance on setting timeliness benchmarks, see DESIGN Step 7.


Transparent systems are open and accountable. They provide clear information about their process, actions and reasons for their decisions and are open to public and oversight scrutiny.

In a transparent complaint handling system, complainants are told:

  • who is handling the complaint and be given a point of contact

  • how the complaint process works, including what information they should provide and when to provide it

  • when to expect further contact or a final decision

  • reasons for any delays

  • the reasons for decisions

  • their review and escalation options

  • how their information will be used.

Actions taken in the handling of a complaint should also be clearly documented and capable of scrutiny in quality assurance processes and by oversight agencies.

Unreasonable complainant conduct (UCC)

People may be angry and frustrated when they make a complaint and there may be good reasons for this. It can be difficult to determine when complainant conduct becomes unreasonable. An inability to deal with UCC can tarnish an agency's reputation and diminish its efficiency.

Complainant's conduct can be considered unreasonable if its nature or frequency consumes a disproportionate amount of your agency's resources to the detriment of other complainants and/or raises significant health or safety issues for your staff.

Examples include where the person:

  • is aggressive and verbally abusive

  • threatens harm and violence

  • bombards an organisation with unnecessary and excessive phone calls and emails

  • makes unrealistic or inappropriate demands

  • is unreasonable or persistent—continually refusing to accept the organisation's decisions and recommendations in relation to their complaints.


A user-centred complaint handling system means putting the complainant and their experience at the centre of its design and practice. For guidance on user-centred design see DESIGN Principle 1.


A complainant's perception about the extent to which their expectations have been fulfilled.

Systemic issue

A systemic issue is an underlying weakness in a system that may affect how a program or service is delivered. Issues arising in complaints may be systemic if they are likely to affect a number of complainants.

Generally, one off mistakes and errors by agency staff are not a systemic issue. However, if a particular issue or mistake occurs multiple times, it could be a symptom of an underlying systemic issue such as inadequate training or supervision arrangements.

Systemic issues can arise in legislation, policy, procedure, program design, or administration. The nature of the systemic issue will determine where feedback should be directed, and the scope of the agency to influence systemic improvement.


An unfavourable complaint handling outcome or decision is where the person has not achieved the outcome they sought, or only achieved part of the outcome they sought.


A person is vulnerable when their personal circumstances mean they are significantly:

  • less likely to be able to access or use complaint handling services

  • more likely to experience harm, detriment or disadvantage without additional assistance.

Vulnerability is a relative concept and may vary depending on the person, the nature of their complaint and function of the agency.

For example, a welfare recipient may be considered 'financially vulnerable' for an agency whose complainants are ordinarily in well paid employment. On the other hand, for an agency whose complainants are generally welfare recipients, a person may need to have worse overall financial circumstances to be 'financially vulnerable' for that agency's triaging purposes.

It is important to assess vulnerability on a case-by-case basis, rather than making assumptions based on a person's membership of a particular group. A person who is ordinarily not vulnerable may become so in the context of the complaint.

Assessment of vulnerability requires acknowledging it is a dynamic concept and may require subjective assessments to be made.

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