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The Hidden Power of the Government Form Letter

The Hidden Power of the Government Form Letter

What happens when you make it easy for citizens to understand your message?

Years ago, a large state agency asked for help with a form letter its public records program was required to send, within five days, to anyone requesting a record. 

The problem with the form letter, the staff told me, was that it tended to prompt phone calls from the same citizens, businesses, and news organizations they'd just sent it to. So many calls, in fact, that program staff was spending many hours each day explaining the letter's meaning over the phone — time they could have spent actually assembling the records the callers had asked for.

Here's part of the original letter:

Pursuant to RCW 42.17.320, we are informing you that [your public records request] has been received and we estimate a further response to you by mail within thirty (30) days of this letter.  Although we hope to complete your request as soon as possible, we are making allowances for variables for file availability, increased request demand, computer system downtime ….

We simplified this letter, then tested it with real people. 

As a group, we first revised the letter and improved the tone. It read: 

We received your public records request and are assembling the materials you requested.

Then we conducted a simple 'usability' test with typical customers to see if they could easily 'use' the new letter. Could they understand it? Had we missed critical information customers would call us about? 

What we learned was important: People who requested the agency's public records wanted to know what would happen next. Why did the program need up to 30 days to deliver them?  What was its staff actually doing all of that time? Couldn't they simply pull the documents out of a file, make photocopies, and pop them in the mail?

Then we used the feedback

Our usability participants had pretty good point. How could we expect a citizen or business to understand what went into finding a record held in an agency with dozens of programs that served more than 2.5 million people? How could they know, for example, how many steps it took the staff to review a document for confidential information, then redact it? 

As a result, the team created a professionally designed information sheet to enclose with the now-simplified letter. This sheet can be downloaded here and has been provided courtesy of the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries.

A few weeks after I finished my work with the program, I got a phone call from a woman who had worked on the rewrite team.

"The phone calls have stopped," she said. 

She was right. After the team measured the performance of the new letter and information sheet, it found that:

  • Calls had dropped by 95%
  • Average delivery time for public records dropped from 12 to six days.
  • Existing staff could handle its increasing workload. (It had been planning to ask for two additional positions — an annual cost of $105,000.)

In the years that followed, I found similar results from projects that had simplified its form letters, improved their appearance and tone, and based its decisions on the researched needs of the reader rather than the program.

  • A licensing department dropped hotline busy signals by more than 90%.
  • A pension department increased the percentage of customers delivering beneficiary information on time from 46% to as high as 67% — speeding deliveries of first pension payments.
  • An audit program dropped the percentage of unresponsive or unprepared businesses owners by 27% — saving many hours of auditor time. 

What's different about a form letter that really works?

  • It's short and to-the-point.
  • Insider program and legal jargon is avoided and replaced by plain language.
  • It's written to the reader — "We will send you the information in 10 days.”
  • It has a visible organization that's immediately apparent, so information can be quickly scanned and understood:
    1. What's this letter all about?
    2. What do I need to do (or not do)?
    3. How — exactly — do I do this?
    4. What will happen after I do it?
    5. Where do I get more information?

For the last 20 years, websites, online applications, and social media tools have been the darlings of government agencies, tending to attract the most attention and funding in the typical communications budget. 

Yet, much state and local government business still depends upon automatically generated or standard form letters, forms, invoices, citations, and other high-volume documents. They are an agency's underground infrastructure — essential to collecting and delivering information directly to citizens yet overlooked as tools that need regular sharpening. 

In another 20 years, the paper could disappear, replaced completely by digitally delivered form letters and forms. But citizens will still need to understand — quickly — what they mean, what they must do with them, and what will happen next. 

And you will still want them to.

For more in-depth coverage of these issues, please consider registering for our July 18 webinar, Building Trust in Government Through Plain Language, from 11 AM—12 PM. In this webinar, Dana will outline specific steps your local government can take to fix confusing content and see examples of content that did and didn’t work.

Question? Comments

If you have questions about this topic or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. If you have questions or comments about this blog post, please email the MRSC Insight Editors.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Dana Howard Botka

Based in Olympia, Dana has spent more than 20 years in public service using plain language and User-Centered Design to improve hundreds of documents and websites that citizens need to quickly and easily understand. She is now the owner of PlainPoint Consulting, which provides training, mentoring, and consultation services, focusing on the needs of state and local government needs.