Using complaints for learning and improvement


The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) introduced the idea of a small learning and improvement unit in our 2016-2020 strategic plan consultation. It was positively received by stakeholders and its overall aim is to improve public services by increasing the impact of our work, especially our recommendations. For the first time, we have dedicated resources to do more ‘preventative’ work and, along with our Complaints Standards Authority, the unit supports organisations to get upstream of complaints to help identify and tackle problem areas early.


The focus of the SPSO’s Learning and Improvement unit (the LIU) is on building our capacity to drive improvement through learning from complaints, especially by the public authorities that bring us the largest volume of complaints or that exhibit repeat failings or systemic complaints handling issues. The unit began work in July 2016, and comprises two FTE LIU officers and with senior management input.

Analysing recommendations

Internally, our starting point was to carry out systematic analysis of our recommendations. We examined the over 1,500 recommendations we made in 2015-16, and found that, whilst around 40% focused on putting things right for individuals, around 60% of them aimed to ensure the organisation would learn in order to prevent the same thing happening again. We also surveyed public authorities for their views of our recommendations, held workshops for complaints staff to provide input and used insights from our Customer Sounding Board. On the basis of this analysis and feedback, we are now developing the way we make recommendations to make them even more targeted and effective.

 The key aim is to support organisations to identify and develop their own solutions for preventing repeat mistakes and improving services, in a way that they can clearly measure the impact from the changes they are making as a result of complaints.

Systemic issues

We have improved our methods internally for identifying systemic issues and complaints handling issues. This provides valuable intelligence for internal and external purposes.  It has enabled us to strengthen links with key scrutiny and improvement bodies to identify ways in which they can support improvement from complaints, for example by providing organisations such as Audit Scotland with tailored information to feed into their role in carrying out public audits.

Thematic report

In March 2017 we published our first ever thematic report – for this report we selected the subject of medical consent as a systemic issue. Irrespective of the important subject matter, the report showed the underlying strength of putting similar or related complaints alongside each other, and using the collective power of complainants stories to identify common issues and recommend solutions.  The report explores the context for consent, given significant recent legal and policy developments in this area. We are keen to be able to be part of the solution as well as present issues and so we have put forward ways in which health organisations can address the problem. It includes a practical tool (the consent checklist) for health organisations, scrutiny bodies and policy-makers to use in evaluating whether a consent process is robust enough to avoid the common failings we see.

Working with specific organisations

We have identified individual authorities to work closely with on areas that we think would benefit from focused attention. Key areas are the quality of complaints investigation in particular for more complex, intractable complaints that require more detailed investigation, and embedding quality assurance.  The response to our approach from these organisations has been positive and we expect to identify other organisations for this targeted work in 2017-18.

Sharing and supporting good practice

We are developing a bank of guidance and tools to support public bodies in embedding their learning and improvement activity in 2017-18. These will enhance specific improvements in quality assurance and root cause analysis. They include expansion of our Complaints Improvement Framework, a tool we have developed to help authorities self-assess the effectiveness of their complaints handling arrangements at a strategic level across six areas of good practice.  We have also developed a ‘decision-making tool’ and a QA tool.  All of these resources will be promoted on our Valuing Complaints website which we are overhauling with a target re-launch date of April 2017.

Improvement Conference

We held a cross-sector learning event in March 2017, bringing together the learning and improvement products we have developed and sharing these along with examples of good practice we have identified in other organisations. The conference provided an opportunity for up to 200 practitioners to improve their complaints handling practice and ensure impactful outcomes.

In conclusion

The first year of funding is enabling us to do the ground-work for delivering very valuable outcomes. We are keen to make the LIU an integral part of our work, to support public authorities in bringing about real and lasting change in the quality of public services. You can contact the LIU by email at