The five most unhelpful responses that public organisations give


Have you ever tried to complain to a public-sector organisation or ask them a question they don’t want to answer? If so, you may well have come across one of the standard techniques they operate to wriggle off the hook.

Here is a quickfire guide to the sorts of responses they give, and what you can do about it.

Avoiding the question, or giving an incomplete answer

Thank you for your enquiry about why it’s taken so long to get an appointment. Here’s a link to our customer service promise…

Public sector organisations are notoriously slow to respond. Years of cuts have had an impact on the quality of customer service, but it’s not unknown for officials to use this to their advantage. Their hope is that the longer you wait the more likely you are to throw in the towel.

If it takes weeks to get a response and the reply you eventually receive doesn’t really answer the question, don’t give up. An incomplete answer suggests they may be hiding something. Press on!

Listing irrelevant information

Thank you for your enquiry into why the building burnt down. Here is a list of all the steps we’ve taken to improve fire safety over the last ten years…

This is the standard technique used to take the ‘heat’ out of an awkward situation. The idea is that although they can’t justify the situation, they hope on balance you’ll be less angry with them if they can say something anything positive.

Don’t get put off or bamboozled. If they haven’t answered your question then politely respond explaining why.

Attacking the questioner

I’m sorry you’ve had no water to your home for three weeks, but I’m afraid your attitude is becoming aggressive so I’m going to have to hang up…

Now I’m not suggesting that it’s ok to be aggressive, and getting cross tends to be counter-productive, but this is a technique officials sometimes use when they shouldn’t. Because it’s your word against theirs, it’s difficult to prove they’re not being entirely honest.

Apologise for upsetting them and calmly ask your interlocutor to explain why they are offended. If they hang up anyway, consider continuing your conversation by email. It might take longer, but you will have a complete record of what was said.

Pointless denial

We’re sorry that you broke your leg, but there is no evidence that the big hole we left outside your front door had anything to do with it.

Sometimes you may feel like you are banging your head against a brick wall. The world may appear to have gone mad, but keep your cool. What is your desired outcome? Are you talking to the right person?

The most important thing is to document your situation with photos, letters and anything you can find. Then work your way through the system. Eventually you will get through to the right person – but you may have to jump through a number of hoops first.

No response at all


Most public organisations have a ‘publication schedule’ and terms and conditions that can often be found in the footer of their website. This will tell you how long they have to reply.

If they go outside the maximum time permitted, follow it up with a second letter or email. If that fails it’s time to take the matter further.

You may consider the ombudsman, or why not begin by contacting your local councillor? Some councillors are more responsive than others so make sure you copy in all the elected representatives covering your ward or division.

Remember the three key rules

  • Be patient and keep calm
  • Document everything
    Keep a record of all photographs, emails and letters. Make notes immediately after any phone conversations including the time, who you spoke to and what was agreed.
  • Don’t give up
    Public sector organisations are accountable to the public. As long as you follow the process and treat officials as you would hope to be treated, you deserve to be heard.





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