Practising What We Preach – Accountability and Reporting on Complaints

Lucy Heaven Taylor

by Lucy Heaven Taylor

Lucy Heaven Taylor is an accountability and PSEA specialist with 17 experience in the sector.

The humanitarian and development sector calls on others to be transparent, and in return is becoming more and more stringent about its own accountability. But not all of us are comfortable with the idea of reporting on complaints. Lucy Heaven Taylor asks: What are we afraid of?

Accountability – the core of what we do

The bedrock of our work in the humanitarian and development sector involves holding others to account. Some CHS Alliance members such as Transparency International challenge governments directly, whilst others support rights holders to insist that those in power are transparent and fair. In turn, when the spotlight is turned on our sector, we are generally willing to hold ourselves to account. Over 340 NGOs publish data on their projects via the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). Many also submit annual Accountability Reports to initiatives such as the Global Reporting Initiative and the INGO Accountability Charter.

Our sector’s blind spot

However there is one area where we seem to be more reluctant to be transparent – and that is complaints.

Humanitarian assistance is a huge business reaching millions of people, and complaints are an inevitable part of the work we do. Most established NGOs have polices and procedures for dealing with complaints made against them.

Some organisations do publish information on the complaints they receive, but there are few obligations on us to do so. For example, the Global Reporting Initiative has Standard NGO2 that requires mechanisms for feedback, complaints and action to be in place, but does not require that information on complaints received and dealt with via these mechanisms be made public. Meanwhile, Commitment 5 of the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) also requires that effective complaints and response mechanisms are in place, but again does not specify publishing complaints data.

Given that there is no pressure on organisations to report this data, it is not surprising that not all do – and there may be various reasons behind this.

What are we afraid of?

It is understandable that many organisations are nervous about publishing complaints data. Some are rightfully concerned about confidentiality, but there is no need to publish sensitive information, particularly where this might identify victims – just top line data is enough to be useful. Some agencies might also be reluctant to ‘air their dirty laundry in public’, concerned that acknowledging complaints might make it look as though they are inefficient and corrupt. In a sector where we are constantly vying for donor funds, any admissions of mistakes made might detract from communicating the good work we do. However as we will see, being honest about complaints can actually work in our favour.

Why we should make complaints data public

There are many advantages to publishing our complaints data:

  • If we work to hold others to account, we must be very stringent in our own transparency. When we publish data about the complaints we have received, we demonstrate our own commitment to accountability.
  • It helps to engender a relationship of trust with our donors, the public who support us, and – most importantly – the communities we seek to assist.
  • One of the core underlying principles of the assistance community is ‘do not harm’. Publishing complaints data benefits the whole sector, allowing us to analyse the information in order to determine how best to prevent our presence from being harmful. We can use this both internally within our organisations, and externally to track trends.
  • Finally, by publicly demonstrating that we take action on complaints, we help create an environment where people feel more confident in coming forward and reporting.

As mentioned, a cross-section of NGOs – northern and southern, large and small – already reports their complaints data. The organisations vary in what they report – some (particularly child-focused ones) report safeguarding data, some focus on more general complaints. To date there has been no negative response to these publications that we are aware of, in fact agencies report that the experience has been a positive one.

How to do it

The CHS Alliance recommends standard categorisation, so we can compare our data against others, and analyse trends across the sector. More information can be found in the CHS Guidance Notes and Indicators.

  1. Ensure you have a clear definition of a complaint for your organisation. The CHS Alliance guidelines use the following definition: ‘An expression of dissatisfaction about the standards of service, actions or lack of action by the organisation or its staff, volunteers or anybody directly involved in the delivery of its work. It is a criticism that expects a reply and would like things to be changed’.
  2. Decide what to include in your public reporting. Complaints data is usually highly confidential, but providing top line data can still give us useful information. You could consider reporting the following:
    • Categories of complaint
    • Number of complaints in each category
    • Actions taken as a result of the complaint
  3. Decide where to report. Not all organisations report in the same place – and you could use more than one place to report your data. Here are some suggestions:
    • Your organisation’s annual report
    • The Global Reporting Initiative report
    • The INGO Charter Annual Report
    • Your organisation’s website

Not every agency is ready to report their complaints data. We recommend that you first prioritise building your complaints and feedback mechanisms, so that they are robust enough to effectively capture and deal with complaints. When you are ready, further help can be found in the CHS Alliance’s Guidance Note and Protocol on Publishing Complaints Metrics.