Public bodies in sorry state over apologies for errors

Peter Tyndall

Sorry may be the hardest word, but it is also the smartest one for public bodies keen to stop errors and poor service escalating into protracted disputes, the Ombudsman has said.

Peter Tyndall has issued a guide on ‘making a meaningful apology’ and is urging government departments, local authorities, the HSE, and other public service providers to heed its advice.

“Many people who complain to my office about public services tell me that what they are looking for is for the service provider to acknowledge that something went wrong and to receive a meaningful apology,” he said.

“People tell us they want to be listened to. They want to be reassured that lessons have been learned and that the same mistake does not happen again.”

Mr Tyndall said many complaints could have been avoided if an apology had been given by frontline staff involved in the incident or by a senior manager.

The Ombudsman’s office took on 3,200 new complaints against public bodies last year, many of which Mr Tyndall believes could have been resolved by the service providers themselves if they had taken the right approach.

Many attempt to apologise but its wording and delivery can determine whether it will be accepted or if it only succeeds in exacerbating a situation.

Common failings include apologising too late, too vaguely, including a defence for the behaviour or practice complained of, or appearing to question a client or customer’s right to be upset by using the dreaded phrase “sorry if you are offended”.

Mr Tyndall’s three-page guide advises service providers to apologise quickly, in detail, avoiding corporate lingo, and taking a personal approach that allows individual staff members own up to their failings.

“An apology is not a sign of weakness,” said Mr Tyndall. “Rather, it can be a sign of strength and it can show that public service providers are willing to learn when something has gone wrong.

“It can also show that a service provider is committed to putting things right. To apologise is good practice and it is an important part of effectively managing complaints.”

His call echoes that of Health Minister Leo Varadkar earlier this year after a series of scandals repeatedly showed the reluctance of medical personnel and administrators to apologise.

“When something goes wrong, it’s OK to say that you’re sorry about what happened. It does not mean you’re accepting liability,” said Mr Varadkar.

“Evidence shows that patients and families who are harmed are less likely to sue, and much more willing to accept a fair offer of compensation if they have been treated with compassion, courtesy, and honestly.”


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