Still learning from experience

30 May 2024 Communication is key, Improving policy and procedure, Making good decisions, Managing complaints, Case studies, News

Dealing with complaints from across Queensland’s public sector gives the Office a unique perspective of the problems faced by ordinary people every day. 

In 1974, the first year of operation for this Office, Sir David Longland said:

In endeavouring to separate a common theme in complaints … a large number are based on some lack of communication. … Explaining a decision in writing or setting some time aside for discussion is not only of public benefit, but also is a useful exercise for a department or authority that values its reputation for fairness.

Over 50 years, five priority areas have consistently been the cause of problems in public administration: 

  • policies and procedures
  • communication
  • performance monitoring
  • workforce capacity
  • legislative compliance.

The following tips and relevant case studies are useful for continuous improvement and risk management processes in agencies.

1. Policies and procedures

Essential guidance for staff on how to perform their jobs well.

  • regularly review and update policies 
  • make policies easy to access 
  • communicate changes in policies 
  • tidy up overlaps between policies, and close gaps
Relevant case studies
  • Casebook 2024 (p. 6) – to improve its decisions, a council agreed to update its dog registration policy to comply with legislation 
  • Casebook 2024 (p. 13) – a university updated its policies and procedures to address difficulties in combining different procedures governing an appeal process 
  • Casebook 2023 (p. 18) – to improve complaints assessment, a council agreed to provide better guidance to staff in a policy on how to assess noise complaints (p.18)
  • Brisbane Youth Detention Centre report (2019) – as it was common for operational staff to not access emails for extended periods of time, the use of emails to communicate operational directives was not effective 
  • Workplace Electrocution Project report (2005) - seven guidelines and manuals contained numerous overlapping requirements, causing considerable confusion in the industry.
Further reading

Create useful and relevant policy by using our checklist for developing your policies.

2. Communication

Good communication with staff, stakeholders, clients and other agencies is vital. Lack of understanding and confusion are a common cause of complaints to our office.

  • Educate those affected by your services 
  • Check information to avoid errors or inconsistencies 
  • Provide reasons for decisions and communicate them in writing
  • Design forms that are clear and easy to use  
Relevant case studies
  • Casebook 2024 (p. 5) – a council agreed to better educate people about parking requirements at a local market to reduce confusion and complaints about fines
  • Casebook 2024 (p.8) – to improve community understanding, a council agreed to rewrite a fact sheet about boundary management, and to communicate it via its website
  • Casebook 2023 (p.7) – while phone communication about a decision was good administrative practice, we advised to also communicate decisions in writing. The written communication should include information about how the decision was reached and rights of review 
  • Indigenous birth registration report (2018) - online forms for two related processes caused confusion amongst a department’s customers about which process incurred a cost.
Further reading

Improve communication of decisions by using our decision-making checklist
Consider the communication tips in our checklist for programs with eligibility criteria

3. Performance monitoring

Understanding how you are performing against your objectives is essential to identify areas to focus on.

  • Develop clear, measurable performance objectives 
  • Regularly monitor performance data to assess progress towards objectives 
  • Implement a risk-based program of audits and reviews of operational areas 
  • Use customer complaints to understand problems affecting service delivery
Relevant case studies
  • Prison overcrowding and other matters report (2024) – Queensland Corrective Services report publicly on two performance measures about the extent of prison utilisation. A stock and flow simulation model is used to forecast future prisoner numbers and utlisation. These sources of information enable QCS to assess prison utilisation pressure points and develop bids for additional resourcing.
  • Casebook 2024  (p. 24) – the Queensland Rural and Industry Development Authority used insights gained from a complaint to make improvements to its grants assessment and communication processes
  • Strip Searching of Female Prisoners report (2014) – the lack of any review of strip search practices over a long period contributed to their unauthorised use.
  • Air Link Project report (2011) – to improve noise monitoring from night-time surface work, the Ombudsman recommended that the agencies involved review noise data in the monitoring reports 

4. Workforce

To achieve their objectives, agencies need well supported staff with the right knowledge and skills to fulfil those objectives. 

  • staff should only perform roles if they have the necessary skills and knowledge 
  • provide training to build staff capacity, including refresher training
  • provide staff with guidance about operational processes
  • deal with increases in staff workload 
Relevant case studies 
  • Casebook 2023 (p. 16) – Queensland Health allocated additional resourcing, including specialist clinical assessment teams, to improve processing times and enable appropriate consideration of complex border exemption requests 
  • Casebook 2023  (p. 19) – to improve decisions about proposed developments, a council organised training for staff about assessing applications for amenity and aesthetics
  • Casebook 2023 (p. 11) – to improve the assessment of nuisance complaints, a council developed a procedural document to better guide staff in assessing complaints 
  • Fire ants report (2021) – the introduction of a new digital data entry capability for field officers contributed to improvements in timeliness of service responses
  • Neville report (2011) – the report found a number of workforce issues in an emergency department, including staffing contrary to recommended standards, contributed to a defective system of care.

5. Legislative compliance

Public sector officers have a fundamental duty to comply with legislation. 

  • Ensure that staff understand the requirements of the legislation that they are implementing
  • Provide information systems that staff can use to demonstrate compliance
  • Manage records in compliance with the Public Records Act
  • Make decisions that implement the Human Rights Act
Relevant case studies
  • Casebook 2024 (p. 12) – good recordkeeping for a decision by a university allowed the decision maker to easily defend their decision (
  • Casebook 2023 (p. 21)– a council used a checklist and a risk assessment to document the results of its dog enclosure inspection, demonstrating compliance with legislative requirements
  • Casebook 2022 (p. 15) – The department agreed to include human rights considerations in complaints and internal reviews. This is regardless of whether a complainant specifically raises a breach of the Human Rights Act 2019. 
  • Forensic Disability Services report (2019) – Recordkeeping failings impacted services by reducing capacity for clinical oversight, hindering information sharing and reducing the ability to measure progress and outcomes.
  • Classification and Movement of Prisoners report (2009) – technical limitations in the department’s information management system undermined the ability of officers to comply with legislative requirements.
  • Daintree River Ferry report (2006) – Two officers failed to make a file or diary note of telephone discussions with the successful tenderer in a procurement process. This exposed those officers and the council to allegations of bias. 
Further reading

Learn more about record keeping and human rights in our good decisions resource.

Modified list from Learning from experience, which was published in 2022 to recognise the 20th anniversary of the improvement function that commenced with the Ombudsman Act 2001

Last updated: Friday, 31 May 2024 11:17:15 AM