Citizen or customer? Complaints handling in the public sector

Research output: Journal Publications and ReviewsRGC 21 - Publication in refereed journalpeer-review

56 Scopus Citations
View graph of relations


  • Brian Brewer


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)549-556
Journal / PublicationInternational Review of Administrative Sciences
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2007


Ensuring that public service complaints are handled effectively and rights of redress upheld is an integral feature of good governance and effective service delivery. A review of the academic literature and a number of key government reports reveals what citizen complaint and redress systems exist currently, how they can be designed and enabled to operate with the greatest positive impact, and why they are important in holding public officials accountable for the use of discretionary decision-making authority. With the development of new public management (NPM) and public sector reforms in many jurisdictions, a consumerist model for handling complaints has come increasingly to the fore. When combined with the traditional citizenship perspective, this would appear to have considerable potential for improving complaints handling and redress. However, the consumerist model's narrow focus on customer satisfaction and the risk of weakening citizenship values such as fairness and social justice suggest a cautious approach may be best. Public sector managers and professionals need an awareness of how public reform strategies oriented exclusively towards a strengthened consumer role do risk undermining important aspects of the complaints handling and redress strategies embedded in the 'rule of law' and 'due process' features of citizen-oriented public administration. Accountability may be weakened when service recipients are defined less in terms of their citizenship and more on the basis of a narrowly defined status as a marketplace consumer. This is a key implication of current trends by governments to rely increasingly on privatization, contracting-out and public-private partnerships to deliver services. Points for practitioners: How well service complaints are handled is a key determinant of quality in the public services at both systemic and service-recipient levels. Procedures that are easily accessible, simple to invoke and operate, transparent, ensure stakeholders are kept informed, and sensitive to different social groups help build confidence in complaints handling and redress processes. However, as more public services are delivered by quasi-public and private organizations using contracting and subcontracting arrangements, the challenge facing practitioners is how to ensure that citizen-centric values are maintained even as external review agencies like the Ombudsman and traditional accountability promoting procedures are replaced by narrower consumerist-oriented approaches. © 2007 IIAS, SAGE Publications.

Research Area(s)

  • Citizenship, Complaints handling, Consumerism, Public management, Redress