When it turns out that a service or commitment has been wrongly denied or delayed, the public service provider should always give a detailed explanation and/or an apology. This guidance note describes what an apology is and what you need to do for an apology to be meaningful.
Many people tell us that what they are looking for by making a complaint is for the service provider to acknowledge that something went wrong and to receive a meaningful apology. An apology is much more than an expression of regret. It can be relatively simple to say sorry that someone had a 'bad experience'. It is much harder to apologise for your mistakes or for those made by your organisation. An apology is an exchange between two people (or groups), so getting the process right is as important as saying the right things.
A meaningful apology can help both sides calm their emotions and move on to put things right. It is often the first step to repairing a damaged relationship. An apology can help restore trust and avoid future disputes. It acknowledges that you did not behave in line with your responsibilities or rules.
Our experience is that people who make a complaint want and expect many different things from an apology.
They may want you to:
To make your apology meaningful you should:
Make amends - put things right where you can. (See our Ombudsman document: "Redress - Getting it Wrong and Putting it Right")
It is important that, when you are making an apology, you understand:
You cannot put together a meaningful apology without understanding these things. We recommend that you ask the person making the complaint what they want and involve them in deciding the content of the apology and how it should be made.
Each complaint is unique, so your apology will need to be based on the individual circumstances.
As a general rule, where you are willing and able to apologise, you should be supported in doing so.
If you are employed by, or have been contracted by, a public service provider and are unsure whether you should make an apology or whether someone else should make an apology on your behalf, you should ask your colleagues for advice. Your organisation may have guidelines you can use. In some cases, the leader of your organisation may want to make a personal or official apology on your behalf.
In other cases, you may feel that the leader of your organisation is more responsible for the offence and should make the apology. If your organisation is apologising on your behalf, the apology should be made by the person who takes overall responsibility for the services provided by that organisation, such as the manager or owner.
It is important to remember that an apology is not a sign of weakness or an invitation to be sued. It can be a sign of strength and it can show that you are willing to learn when something has gone wrong.
It can also show that you are committed to putting things right. To apologise is good practice and is an important part of effectively managing complaints. This guidance note on 'Making a Meaningful Apology' has been adapted from guidance provided by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO).Download (pdf)