Fundamentals of a Complaints Mechanism

Define “Complaint”

This section discusses establishing an internal complaint and resolution process for government departments and other organizations. If you are an individual looking to make a complaint, please visit our Complaints page instead.

Define the complaints your organization will and will not accept.

Your organization must decide what type of complaints it will accept. Will there be limits on the nature of the complaints you will review? If so, these limits must be identified in the written material you provide to the public in order to ensure that complainants have appropriate and realistic expectations of your process. For example, some agencies do not have the legal authority to reconsider the merits of the decisions they have made. However, these agencies can consider and respond to complaints about other aspects of service delivery, such as delay or rudeness. A description of any statutory appeal or other review options that may be available should also be provided in your written material.

Your agency must also decide what forms of communication activate your internal complaint mechanism (ICM). For example, must all complaints be in writing? Must the complainant use a special form? Must the complaint be addressed to a particular person? The written material that your agency produces to describe the ICM should include these points. If your agency responds differently to oral complaints than to written complaints, an explanation outlining the differences must be included in your written material.

Define Your Process

It is essential to define your process, ensuring it includes the following elements:

  • An opportunity for each complaint to be considered, and an opportunity for a response to be provided for each complaint.
  • An opportunity for all relevant information presented by all affected parties to be considered before reaching a decision.
  • Allow for a decision to be reached in a timeframe suitable to the nature of the complaint.
  • Require that reasons for a decision be provided in sufficient detail to suit the nature of the complaint.
  • Give appropriate consideration to confidentiality and privacy.

Document Your Process

It is essential you have a clearly written and well-publicized description of your process, available to both staff and the public.

Documented procedures are an integral part of the internal complaint mechanism process for both the public and for the staff. In some agencies, this may be the same document; other agencies may want to present the information in separate formats for these two audiences. For the public, the document should clearly outline the steps that must be taken to make a complaint and the steps that your agency will take in response. For staff, the document should clearly outline the steps that will be taken internally once the complaint is received. These steps should include written documentation of the following: a summary of the complaint, the outcome following consideration of the complaint by your agency, and communication of the outcome, with reasons, to the complainant.

Making Exceptions

It is essential to create an internal complaint mechanism (ICM) process that is flexible enough to respond to differing needs and demands of complainants and to adapt to new and/or special situations.

There may be cases where your agency’s need for an efficient and clearly delineated process may conflict with the needs of the complainant. For example, a complaint may involve issues that should be considered by senior management. In such a case, it may be a waste of your resources and the complainant’s time to have the complaint considered at several lower levels before it reaches senior management. Your ICM should give complaint-handlers sufficient discretion to make exceptions where necessary.

Data Collection

Your internal complaint mechanism (ICM) is a valuable tool for collecting information about individual complaints and complaint trends and for providing feedback to your agency.

Recording and analyzing the types of complaints, as well as the outcomes of those complaints, can provide information to agencies on how to improve efficiency, provide higher quality service and foster improved relationships with the public. A plan for how this data will be collected and how it will be reviewed is an important component of an effective ICM.


It is essential that your internal complaint mechanism (ICM) is accessible to the public.

As a public agency, you will have established standards to ensure that your programs are accessible to the public. The standards of accessibility for your ICM should be, at a minimum, equal to those for your other programs and services.