What to expect when we receive a complaint about your organisation

What the INWO can investigate 

The Independent National Whistleblowing Officer (INWO) is a role undertaken by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO). The INWO’s authority to investigate complaints about whistleblowing in the NHS in Scotland, comes from the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman Act 2002.

The matters that the INWO can investigate include:

  • how an organisation has handled a whistleblowing complaint, including whether the organisation followed the process laid out in the National Whistleblowing Standards (the Standards)
  • decisions and actions taken by an organisation in response to a whistleblowing complaint
  • the treatment of any individual as a result of the whistleblowing complaint being raised (this includes the whistleblower or anyone else involved in the concern)
  • an organisation’s wider approach to learning from concerns, including how it supports and encourages a culture of speaking up to improve patient safety and service delivery.

At the end of an investigation, and where needed, the INWO can recommend that the NHS provider takes action to fix the problems identified and learns from the concern that has been raised.

Individual members of staff working for the INWO have the mandate to act under delegated authority granted by the Ombudsman, based on the powers that she holds.

Complaints process overview 

The INWO will normally only investigate a concern after it has been through both stages of the local process, although in some circumstances the INWO can become involved before this, as explained below.

When we receive a complaint it can progress through the following 3 steps:

When we receive a new complaint, we will check if the concern has been through the organisation’s whistleblowing procedure first. If this hasn’t happened, we will normally ask the person making the complaint to complete the local process. If they are finding it difficult to raise a concern we will advise them on how to proceed. We can intervene in the process if necessary – we may contact your organisation on the individual's behalf. We call this a monitored referral. If the person raising the concern is still dissatisfied with how their concern was dealt with after the local process has finished, they can bring their complaint back to the INWO for further review.

We will also decide whether the concern is something we can investigate. There are some things our legislation does not allow us to look at, such as issues that have been decided (or are being decided) by an Employment Tribunal. If we cannot look at the complaint, we will contact the person to let them know why and discuss any concerns that they have about our decision.

At this stage, we will contact the person making the complaint to gather some more information. With their permission, we will contact your organisation to let you know that a complaint has been made and what it is about. We will ask you for a copy of your complaint file, so we are clear on the concerns that were brought to you and handled under the Standards.

The INWO is independent and impartial so we must look at both sides of the story. We will get information from both the person making the complaint and your organisation to understand what has happened and what should have happened. If we are having difficulty getting the information we need from your organisation, we will act in line with our Support and Intervention Policy to give you the chance to resolve the issue.  

During our investigation we collect and look at evidence including the paperwork we receive and any relevant policies. We may contact your organisation to speak to key witnesses and staff with responsibilities for the area being complained about.  You can find more information in our 'What to expect from an interview with the INWO' leaflet (PDF, 142KB).  We may also take advice from specialist advisers if the complaint is about technical, clinical, legal or HR issues.

Our aim is to find out enough information to make an informed decision about the issues we are investigating.

Once we have investigated we will make a decision either to uphold or not uphold the complaint. If we decide to uphold the complaint we may also make recommendations for improvement or for your organisation to take a specific action to address the failings we have identified.

Before we finalise our decision, we will send a copy of our provisional decision report to the person who made the complaint and to the organisation concerned. The report is likely to consist of an anonymised short report for publication, with appendices which provide the details of our findings, and include confidential information. When we share the draft decision report with you we will specify who you can share the appendices with.

The draft decision gives your organisation the opportunity to tell us if we’ve relied on inaccurate information or if we have something factually wrong. You can also let us know if you have any new information that you think will change our decision. We will consider comments we receive from both parties before issuing our final decision and recommendations.

The anonymised short report and recommendations will be published on our website and presented to Parliament. The full report with appendices will be shared with both parties, along with instructions about how widely information in the appendices can be shared.

We follow up on any recommendations we make and we will require evidence to be provided that your organisation has taken action.

Decision review process

If we have decided not to investigate, or decided to discontinue an investigation, your organisation and the person making the complaint may ask us for a review of our decision. However, not all of our decisions are eligible for review under this process. In particular, the review process cannot be used to challenge the findings in a provisional or final investigation decision.  Further information about the review process is available under Decision Review Process.

Customer service standards

We are committed to offering a high standard of service to everyone who uses our services. We have detailed information available on our service standards and on what to do if you have a concern or complaint about the service you received.

Customer service standards

Advice line

The INWO advice line is a free, independent and confidential national phone service for whistleblowing across NHS Scotland.

The INWO advice line is available to assist organisations who are seeking advice or information on implementing the National Whistleblowing Standards. You can contact the INWO advice line on Freephone 0800 008 6112 or via e-mail [email protected].

Please note, the phone line will be open from 9am-1pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and from 12pm-4pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

NHS staff responding to concerns can get casework related advice and support from the SPSO’s Complaints Standards Officers. The team can be contacted on 0131 240 2978 or by email at [email protected].

Updated: January 23, 2024