Dysfunctional accountability in complaint systems: the effects of complaints on public service employees

Christian Gill, Maria Sapouna, Carolyn Hirst, Jane Williams

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    This article examines the effect that being complained about has on public service employees. The volume of complaints about public bodies is significant: an estimated 543,000 complaints a year are made about central government, while the English NHS was subject to 208,415 complaints in 2016-2017. Despite the significant expansion of complaint procedures following the Citizen’s Charter reforms in the 1990s, there has been no empirical research into the way in which complaints affect employees outwith the healthcare sector. Most scholarly debate has focused on whether complaints procedures within government have improved customer service or been useful for service improvement. Little attention has been paid to the experience of being subject to a complaint and the influence this has on work practice.

    In this respect, the public accountability literature suggests that significant dysfunctional effects may result from accountability regimes, including: defensive practices, tick-box compliance, excessive formality, and reduced innovation. In the healthcare setting, negative effects arising from being complained about include defensive medical practice, avoidance behaviours, wariness towards service users, and reduced wellbeing. While some positive effects have been reported, the thrust of healthcare studies is that complaints have harmful effects on professionals. To date, however, the effects of complaint systems outwith the healthcare context remain uncharted: we do not know whether other public services are affected in similar ways.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)644-664
    Number of pages21
    JournalPublic Law
    VolumeOct. 2019
    Publication statusPublished - 31 Oct 2019


    • Accountability
    • Complaints systems
    • Therapeutic jurisprudence


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