Sorry seems to be the hardest word — but try to say it

By David Donaldson

April 12, 2017

Sorry word on wooden table

Sorry seems to be the hardest word, sang Elton John — but often it’s exactly what citizens want to hear when a government agency has stuffed up.

A genuine apology can be the most effective way for public institutions to resolve a dispute with a member of the public, often preventing an escalation of the problem. Government withholding that recognition of a citizen’s distress can be profoundly alienating for the wronged party.

Yet agencies still often fail to apologise when they cause serious inconvenience through their own mistakes.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass is hoping to change that with a report released this week.

“In my several decades of dealing with complaints about public sector agencies, I have lost track of the number of times I have reviewed a substantial file of evidence, compiled over many months or more, and wondered: Why didn’t they just apologise?” says Glass.

“Of course, some complaints need to be investigated to determine what actually happened, and not every complaint requires or deserves an apology. But in the many cases where someone has a legitimate grievance, a genuine apology is a powerful remedy.”

Make it real

Where they really are in the wrong, it’s important that governments don’t try to shirk responsibility by giving a ‘partial’ apology — wording it in overly bureaucratic language, or the old ‘we are sorry you feel that way’. Such an approach can merely add insult to injury.

Research shows people perceive ‘genuine’ and partial apologies very differently. A genuine apology involves admitting it was your mistake — where appropriate — rather than just regretting that a mistake occurred. Although studies show a partial apology can be better than nothing in some circumstances, where serious harm has occurred, people perceive a partial apology as no better than a lack of response.

A proper apology can include the following elements, according to the ombudsman:

  • Recognition — recognition of the mistake and the harm it caused;
  • Responsibility — an admission of responsibility or fault;
  • Regret — an expression of regret or sympathy;
  • Reasons — an explanation of what happened, or what will be done to investigate;
  • Redress — an explanation of what is being done to fix the mistake or prevent it happening again;
  • Release — in some cases, a request for forgiveness.

When a bureaucratic organisation offers mealy-mouthed excuses for their own shortcoming, this can compound anger and confirm feelings that the organisation does not serve the public’s interests.

As one council response to the ombudsman’s survey put it, “people need to see that there are humans behind the bureaucracy and that we are capable of empathy. It doesn’t fix every complaint but it certainly helps.”

In the words of Adam Fennessy, the secretary of Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, often the community “just want to know who’s responsible, what are we going to do about it, and were we sorry” — as happened when a back-burn conducted by his employees went wrong and destroyed four houses. In that case, Fenessy accompanied the minister and other staff to the town and told them: “we’re responsible, we made a mistake, and I’m sorry”.

“A lot of the community almost breathed a sigh of relief that someone was going to take some accountability. Because ultimately, whatever the arguments, our department did that, we lost some homes and we were responsible,” he told The Mandarin.

The barriers to apologising

So why don’t agencies apologise more often? Such failings can result from a lack of guidance for staff — who might be afraid of embarrassing their employer by admitting fault — but Glass also found that in Victoria, there are concerns about the potential legal ramifications of conceding guilt.

Unlike some states, an apology can be used as evidence in most civil lawsuits, making many agencies afraid to issue a genuine apology. So Glass has recommended parliament amend the relevant act to prevent apologies being used as an admission of liability in all civil proceedings.

An organisational culture that sees apologies as something to be avoided can be a problem, too. Policies, guidelines and training are one way to challenge these perceptions, she argues, though “a significant proportion of authorities in Victoria have not yet taken these steps.”

Yet the ombudsman is optimistic about the future.

“Governments are increasingly comfortable making apologies, with the 2016 parliamentary apology for laws criminalising homosexuality a good recent example. This is a welcome indication that an important cultural shift within government is underway,” she says.

“Saying sorry may sometimes be difficult, but if done well, the results are often worth all the effort and more.”

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