In collaboration with the National Ombudsman, Open State Foundation has started the project Open Complaints. This project is part of the Action plan Open Government 2020-2022, formulated by the Dutch ministry of Interior as a result of the Dutch membership of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Action point 13 advocates for the publication of complaints as open data. In addition, the new Freedom of Information Act (Wet open overheid (Woo)) compels government institutions to publish the written judgments of complaints. An effective complaints handling system is essential for ensuring access to justice and public services. In the Netherlands there is room for improvement when it comes to the handling of complaints: The 25.727 complaints that the National Ombudsman received in 2020 and the role of inadequate complaint handling in the recent childcare benefits scandal illustrate this. The best way to improve the current complaints handling system is to publish complaints as open data. 

Together with the National Ombudsman, Open State wants to improve the handling of complaints in the Netherlands. The end goal of this project is to have all complaint handlers – first-line and second-line – to publish all complaints as open data. We will realise this through the development of data standard and database, and a central dashboard where the data can be searched, filtered and visualised. 

In 2022, the first steps were taken: together with a ‘steering committee’ of municipalities and local ombudsmen we have developed a data standard which can be used for publication of complaints data. The standard includes formal (written)  as well as informal complaints. In 2023 we organised a session with reusers of complaints data – such as journalists, academics and civil society organisations – to test whether the standard meets their information needs. The participants confirmed the importance of including informal complaints in the standard, as these contain valuable information. Additionally, we will involve data teams of complaint handlers to explore the technical options of the standard. The goal for this project is to have the first municipalities and ombudsmen publish their complaints data using our standard.

What are complaints data?

Simply put, complaints data represent characteristics of complaints: they convey information about the contents of a complaint. For example the subject of a complaint, the governing body to which the complaint is addressed, and the verdict of a complaint. Complaints data consist of structured data – such as response time and the method of submission of the complaint – and unstructured data – such as the description of the complaint. 

Imagine that an individual wants to submit a complaint about the reclaiming of childcare allowance by the Dutch tax authorities. For this individual it is useful to have access to information about similar, already processed complaints. For example how long it takes before similar complaints are processed, whether these types of complaints are granted or not, and whether such complaints are processed by first-line or second-line complaints handlers. For the tax authorities it is helpful to gain insight into the topic of complaints. When it becomes apparent that many complaints are submitted about the reclaiming of childcare allowance, the tax authorities can issue an investigation or adapt the execution of this policy, based on this information. 

Why is complaints data important? 

Publication of complaints data is important, not only because it constitutes government information that the taxpayer is entitled to, but also because of the great potential of open complaints data:

  • It contributes to the learning capacity of complaint handlers. It offers them insight into the complaint process, so that they can detect and repair its weak points. They can also compare their approach and results to those of other municipalities or ombudsmen. In addition, registering demographic data can help complaint handlers to get to know the complainant, and to find out which vulnerable target groups do not yet know how to find their services. 
  • Analysis of the data can help improve the services about which citizens complain (and thus prevent complaints). This is the purpose of the right to complain, according to the Ministry of the Interior: ‘On the basis of received complaints, the administration can correct mistakes and eliminate weaknesses within the organisation.’ Implementing a publication standard contributes to this, as the National Programme for Sustainable Digital Information Management (RDDI) explains: ‘Forms of pattern recognition can be used, for example to analyse common complaints, or recurring findings or conclusions. It will be easier to provide insight via infographics, news cross-sections and overviews.’ 
  • The database enables citizens, interest groups and legal entities with a complaint to see how many others are experiencing the same problem. Moreover, complainants can use the information to formulate their complaint in such a way that they meet admissibility requirements and are well-founded in substance. Public complaints can offer them points of departure, material for comparison and (legal) arguments to determine and defend their legal position and chances of success. 
  • Academics, NGOs, politicians, interest groups and journalists can contribute to the foregoing, with their own data analyses and with proposals for improvement of both the complaints handling process and the public services complained about. 

In short, open complaints data contributes to effective access to law and remedy, and to the improvement of public services. Plus, adopting a standard for registering and publishing complaints is cost-effective in the context of the new Open Government Act (Woo).

This Act will require governments and ombudsmen to actively publish the written judgements in complaint procedures. This, together with the inadequate complaints handling process that was revealed by the childcare benefits affair, makes it one of the two points in the Action Plan that have ‘considerable potential for results’, according to the OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM). The IRM also encourages it because it is a pioneering initiative at the international level, with which the Netherlands can set an example for other countries. Therefore, we will eventually focus on developing an international communication strategy and, as part of this, organise events or participate in existing (international) events.