Public service staff receive guide to saying sorry

‘An apology is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it can be a sign of strength’

They are two simple words but it seems public service providers are not always adept at saying “I’m sorry”.

The Ombudsman and Information Commissioner Peter Tyndall has published a "Guide to Making a Meaningful Apology" following complaints from those who often want a simple acknowledgement something went wrong.

Now public service employees will have a simple guide on how to deal with the public when conceding a mistake.

“An apology is not a sign of weakness. 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,” Mr Tyndall said.


“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.”

To apologise is good practice, he said, and an important part of managing complaints.

Specifically, it highlights the importance of a proffering a quick and meaningful apology and using clear and direct language.

The guidelines break it all down - what an apology is; why offer one; what people expect from it and how to deliver.

“A meaningful apology can help both sides calm their emotions and move on to put things right,” it says.

Contrition can be the first step to repairing a damaged relationship and “help restore trust and avoid future disputes”.

What people are often looking for, it explains, is for the service provider to accept they did wrong, confirm the complainer is right, understand why things went wrong and accept responsibility.

“Clearly explain why the offence happened. Also, if there is no valid explanation, then don’t offer an explanation at all. You might just say that there is no excuse for the offending behaviour.”

The apologiser should demonstrate sincerity to show they understand the effect of their actions, the guide says.

“You should take into account the nature of the harm done and the needs of the person who has made a complaint to decide whether you should say sorry in person and then back it up by repeating it in writing, or just make it in writing.”

The “how to” is crucial and the guide suggests asking the person complaining what they expect, perhaps “involve them in deciding the content of the apology and how it should be made”.

Finally, and as with so many things, timing is everything. “You should make an apology as soon as possible after you find out something has gone wrong. A delay can increase the damage done and an opportunity may be lost.”

You can find the document here:

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times