Privacy in complaints management - anonymity and confidentiality

Queensland Government agencies1 are required to comply with the privacy principles in the Information Privacy Act 2009 (Qld) (IP Act) when dealing with personal information.  The privacy principles include the National Privacy Principles (NPPs), which apply only to health agencies2 and the Information Privacy Principles (IPPs) which apply to all other government agencies.3  

What is personal information?

Personal information is any information or opinion about an individual whose identity is apparent or can reasonably be ascertained by reference to other information.4 Information does not have to be true, written down, sensitive or ‘important’ to be personal information. 

What is a complaint?

A complaint is generally considered to be an expression of dissatisfaction with an agency’s policies, products, services, or employees.

The obligation to comply with the privacy principles applies when agencies manage complaints which involve personal information.

Anonymity and the privacy principles

Anonymity is the ability of a person to interact with an agency without identifying themselves. Individuals who make complaints to an agency may prefer to do so anonymously in some circumstances. This is specifically recognised by NPP 8, which states that, wherever it is lawful and practicable, individuals must be given the option of not identifying themselves when entering into transactions with a health agency.

The IPPs do not have an equivalent requirement to allow anonymous transactions with agencies; however the IPPs do limit the collection of personal information.  IPP 1 requires an agency to only collect personal information necessary to fulfil a lawful purpose directly related to a function or activity of the agency or that is directly related to fulfilling that purpose.5

Anonymity and complaints

Dealing with complaints, whether they are about agency staff, services or areas of responsibility, is a function of every agency. The extent to which it will be necessary for a complainant to identify themselves will vary according to the type of complaint and the agency’s response to the complaint. 

Identifying information is not necessary to action the complaint

Where a complaint is about a general issue which requires the agency’s attention but does not directly relate to the complainant—for example, when reporting a broken street light, incidents of graffiti or road potholes—generally there is no need to require the complainant to identify themselves. 

If the agency does not need the identifying information of the complainant to action the complaint, it is irrelevant information and should not be collected.

Identifying information is optional for the complaint

The ability to make an anonymous complaint will depend on the circumstances of the complaint.  In some situations a complaint may not be able to be actioned if it is made anonymously. For example, a person complains about ‘the barking dog in the street’. if there is only one dog in the street the information provided may be enough for the agency to deal with the complaint; if there are six dogs in the street the agency will need more information in order to action the complainant. If the complaint has been made anonymously the agency may not be able to contact them in order to identify which dog the complaint concerned.

Agencies can inform anonymous complainants of this potential by providing a statement advising that, should additional information be required to action the complaint, the absence of identifying and contact information may mean action cannot be taken.

This option allows the complainant to understand the possible consequences of making an anonymous complaint and can make an informed choice whether or not to do so.


Making sure complainants understand the potential consequences of making an anonymous complaint will assist the agency in managing the complainant’s expectations.

If agencies have a general policy of letting complainants know the outcome of their complaint, this statement should also advise that this policy will not apply to complaints made anonymously.

As an alternative, anonymous complainants could be given a reference number specific to their complaint.  They would then be able to contact the agency and provide their reference number to obtain an update on the complaint’s progress.  This would only allow complainant-initiated contact; this method would not allow the agency to contact the complainant.

Identifying information required for the complaint

Some complaints cannot be made anonymously particularly those made under a statutory scheme, where the legislation requires the complainant to provide their name and contact details.

Where the complainant is the person who is affected by a decision or action that is the subject of the complaint, the investigation of the complaint may not be possible in the absence of identifying details of the complainant. 

For some complaints, it is sometimes necessary for the investigation of the complaint for not only the agency to know the identity of the complainant but also for that their identity to be provided to the person who is the subject of the complaint.  For example, a complaint of harassment cannot be investigated unless the person complained about is given details of their alleged harassment which will, by necessity, include the identity of the person they purportedly harassed.

Agencies must take care to only use the identifying information for the purpose of dealing with that complaint unless one or more of the exemptions for secondary use can be met.6

Confidentiality and anonymity

Confidentiality is related to, but a separate principle from, anonymity.  Confidentiality limits access to information and occurs either as a result of an agreement between two or more entities or through the operation of law.7  The complainant and witnesses’ identities are usually treated confidentially in the complaint management process. Confidentiality provides ‘semi-anonymity’ in that only the individual and the agency will know their identity.

Confidentiality is not specifically addressed in the privacy principles.  However, the consequence of a breach of confidentiality may not only be a breach of the agreement or a relevant law but also may constitute a ‘disclosure’8 unless one or more of the exemptions permitting disclosure in IPP 11 or NPP 2 apply.  

Agencies should be mindful that even if they take steps not to disclose the name of a complainant, the amount of information released may mean that an individual’s identity is ‘reasonably ascertainable’9. Agencies would need to find a balance between releasing sufficient information to enable the effective administration of a complaint and indirectly identifying a complainant who has been provided with an assurance of confidentiality.


It is good practice to explain the limits of confidentiality to the parties to a complaint as part of the information provided about the complaint process.

Example policy statement

Complaints will be dealt with in a confidential manner that is respectful to both the complainant and the respondent. Reasonable steps will be taken to protect personal information from loss, unauthorised access, use, disclosure or any other misuse during the complaint handling process. However, the department cannot give an assurance of absolute confidentiality, given statutory obligations and principles of natural justice. 
  • 1 In this Guideline, references to an 'agency' include Ministers, unless otherwise specified.
  • 2 Section 31 of the IP Act
  • 3 Section 27 of the IP Act.
  • 4 See section 12 of the IP Act for the full definition of ‘personal information’.
  • 5 NPP1 (1) provides an equivalent principle to IPP 1.
  • 6 IPP 10 and NPP 2.
  • 7 It is common for legislation to impose confidential obligations on public servants in relation to information dealt with in the course of their employment, for example section 187 of the Child Protection Act 1999 (Qld).
  • 8 See the definition of disclosure in section 23(2) of the IP Act.
  • 9 Section 12 of the IP Act

Current as at: July 3, 2014