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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Can complaints help us to innovate in public services?

Today's news saw the General Medical Council report that the number of complaints in the UK made about doctors has risen 23% in the past year.

As the GMC pointed out, a rise in complaints doesn't necessarily mean declining standards of care, rather it may be due to rising expectations and an increasing willingness of the part of the public to complain.

Rather than complaints being seeing as negative stories that need managing, at Nesta we've been thinking about how complaints can be better used to act as a spur to innovation in public services.

Back in 2006 the Varney Review advised on the opportunities for transforming the delivery of public services by looking at how the channels through which services are delivered could be made more responsive to the needs of citizens and businesses. The review acknowledged growing customer expectations of public services and the desire for high standards of service and swift problem solving. Since then there has been a growing interest in the 'customer' in public services, and an understanding that listening to complaints can be a useful driver for improvement and innovation in the public sector.

Complaints are increasingly, therefore, no longer seen as problems, to be ignored, dismissed or under-valued, but as useful early warning signs that something has gone wrong which uncover problems and enable engagement with service users. There has also been a shift in the way in which complaints are dealt with.

Complaints processes have in some cases been redesigned to be part of continuous improvement processes where complaints are investigated thoroughly, linked to operational procedures and where channels for customers to leave positive feedback are also in place (alongside broader customer satisfaction and customer insight work).

New technologies are also being developed to enable citizens to report problems and leave feedback on the services they have received (for example, Fixmystreet, Patient Opinion, Transport for London's site for reporting problems with roadworks and the Birmingham Civic Dashboard). Technology is now also linking together non-traditional ways of complaining through 'Complaints Choirs', which started in the Hope Institute in Korea, to encourage communities to sing out about things they were unhappy with, or that could be improved.

In some instances new technologies are removing the need to complain altogether as feedback is generated without any intervention from the user. Many software applications have built in 'crash reporting', which sends feedback to the maker when something goes wrong. Boston now has an automatic pothole reporter, that uses an Android map to detect bumps when people are driving, and reports the location directly to the city authorities.

We have been doing some research at Nesta to gather examples of the role that complaints can play in acting as a spur for innovation in public services, including the growing role of technology as a tool for orchestrating complaints. We'll be publishing this later in the autumn, so watch this space.


Jo Casebourne

Jo Casebourne

Jo Casebourne

Director, Public and Social Innovation

Jo led Nesta's Policy and Research work on public and social innovation, working closely with colleagues in the Innovation Lab and Investments.

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