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What makes a good decision letter?

One of my powers as the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces is to review decisions made by the chain of command to not accept a complaint for investigation.  In the first 9 months my office has upheld 53% of reviews of this type in favour of the complainant. In some instances it isn’t because there was a clear error in the decision but because the decision letter didn’t provide the full information required to support the decision itself. I suspect this is an issue that arises in all areas of complaint handling and not just complaints that come under my jurisdiction. In this blog I look at the importance of a good decision letter and the key elements in producing high quality decision letters.

Every aspect of the complaint handling process is essential and equally important, from the way a complaint is initially acknowledged and how progress updates are given, to how the investigation is handled.  But even the most outstanding complaint handling process can come unstuck if the end result is a poor quality decision letter.

A decision letter is the culmination of everything that has come before.  It is how the complaint handler formally communicates what their decision is and why and how they came to that conclusion in an open and transparent way. The decision letter not only helps the complainant to understand the outcome, it is often the basis on which they decide whether they want to take the complaint any further.

It is a common misconception that people will continue to pursue a complaint until they get the answer they want.  While that is true in a small number of cases, quite often an unfavourable decision will be accepted if the complainant feels that it was investigated properly and that a fair and reasonable decision has been reached. For this to happen, you need to demonstrate that the decision is supported by evidence.  You also need to show that you have given the proper consideration to the relevant issues.  A decision may be sound, but if it is communicated poorly it can leave the impression that the complaint wasn’t handled properly and that therefore the decision is unfair. That is why a good decision letter is crucial.

So what makes a good decision letter?  Broadly speaking I think there are three key elements.

  1. Accuracy

No matter how thorough your investigation was if the decision letter contains errors about fundamental elements of the complaint (name, dates, subject matter), the complainant won’t have any trust in the decision you have reached. Take time to proof read and ensure there are no inaccuracies in your decision letter and that you have dealt with the complaint that was made, rather than what you think the complaint is about.

You also need to make sure that the letter only deals with the issue you have been asked to decide.  If your role is to make a decision about whether the complaint is admissible, your decision letter must not make any comments about the merits of the complaint.

  1. Accessibility

A decision letter must be accessible to the person receiving it.  This means that it:

  • Is written in language the complainant understands. Big words and long sentences don’t make a decision any better – especially if they aren’t understood by the reader. Think about who is receiving the decision and what their level of literacy is. Is English their first language?  Decision letters should be written in plain language wherever possible.  This means they are free of jargon, including legal jargon and use short sentences. This doesn’t make them less authoritative, simply more understandable.
  • Is presented in a format that works best. Take time to consider any needs the complainant may have and seek advice if required. g. if you know they have dyslexia is the font type and size appropriate? Have you printed the letter on yellow paper to make it easier to read? Do you know what adjustments you may need to make?
  • Has a clear structure. A decision letter is like a story – it needs to have a clear beginning, middle and end so that the reader can follow it. If a decision letter doesn’t have a structure it will be disjointed and some people can think that it is a deliberate attempt to confuse the recipient. It may help to consider the following questions:
  • Why am I writing this letter (what is the decision I am being asked to make)?
  • Have I made it clear that I understand the complaint being made?
  • What have I considered in making my decision?
  • What is my decision?
  • Have I told the complainant how to take things further if they are not satisfied?
  1. Reasoning

In order for a decision to be understood, either by the complainant or an external body such as myself, your letter need to clearly set out the reasoning behind it. Think back to school and solving maths problems – you couldn’t just state an answer, you always needed to show your working too!  The same is true in complaint handling – you can’t just state your decision, you need to show how you reached that decision. Start with the issue that was considered then look at the evidence gathered and whether you believe the evidence supports the complaint or not before clearly stating your conclusion. If you don’t demonstrate that you have done, or considered, something that is important in the process of reaching that decision, it can’t be assumed that you did.

It may be helpful to go through a quality assurance process, to make sure these three elements are incorporated in all decision letters before they are issued. In my office all investigation reports go through the National Decision Making (NDM) Peer Review process before they are finalised for this very purpose.

Is all of this a lot of work?  It can be, but it isn’t “extra” work.  Writing a decision letter is an essential part of the complaint handling process.  All of the work it entails is time well spent and putting a bit more time into producing a high quality decision letter can in fact reduce the time that needs to be spent dealing with a complaint overall.