Janis Griffiths looks at how to get heard effectively by those in authority.
I’ve been an official carer since the birth of our autistic son, thirty-three years ago, and since then have also done more than my fair share for two sets of parents and others along the way. It’s how some lives work and trust me, I do try to avoid these situations.
In that time I've had several brushes with the police, education authorities, social services, medical services and the DWP (formerly DHSS). I think this experience is common to most people who care for those with complex needs. I've had to learn a trick or two about getting heard by those who matter.
I sincerely wish it wasn’t so, but most experienced carers seem to agree that sometimes you need to be prepared to fight for your rights. So I thought it might be helpful to share a few basic letter-writing tips to those just starting a similar journey. Here’s my quick style and strategy guide for those who need to make themselves understood.
- Never vent your anger or emotions. Be formal, helpful and very polite.
- Decide exactly what you want the letter to achieve and do not deviate from that objective.
- Keep your letter simple and under one side of A4, if possible.
- Look at the website of the organisation: follow the organisation’s information, rules and procedures to complain effectively.
- Send your letter to the person with direct responsibility for your specific issue. If you don't ge a timely response, follow up by copying the letter to others within the organisation in order to elicit a response.
When people write letters to authorities, they can be very angry indeed, and often with good cause. This may lead to a vivid piece of florid writing, which may make the writer feel better, but it’s not going to get results. Vent your emotion by writing it down if you must, but don’t send that piece of writing because it won’t be effective.
Instead, wait for the initial emotion to subside, then start again being absolutely clear in your own mind what it is you want to achieve by writing a letter and then, with a clear head, work towards that target. A specific statement makes life easier for everyone, because then the organisation you are writing to understands what it is you need from them.
Think about the following questions as you write:
• Is writing a letter the best way to achieve what you need?
• What is the specific problem that requires a resolution?
• What are the important questions that you need answering?
• What actions do you need the organisation to take to resolve the issue?
• What reasonable timeframe can you suggest for the organisation to take action in order to resolve the issue?
It's important to be realistic about what you can achieve. In my experience, sometimes the best you can expect is that someone has a difficult time explaining what has happened to their manager. I've found that organisations tend to close ranks to protect their own and present a united face to the letter writer, even if behind the scenes there are questions being asked. However angry you feel, try to bear in mind that hostility is counterproductive, so you need to play by the organisational rules and channel the fury into achieving something more productive.
Most letters of complaint are not initially read by those in authority. In the first instance, your letter may go to someone very low down the food chain in the organisation. That person may not be very literate and may simply choose from one of several proforma responses. Therefore you need to ensure that your letter will be read by someone who has the power and authority to make a decision.
Do your research. Look on the website of the organisation in question to find the relevant, named person and write to them directly. Generally, I’ll also copy in the Chair of the organisation and any scrutiny bodies as well. If there are errors in the letters you have been sent or on the organisation's website, you may choose to make an additional complaint, if you have not had an adequate response. In the past, I've complained about bad grammar in letters from education authorities and schools, which always elicits a response because of the embarrassment. These letters almost automatically get escalated to someone higher up to deal with.
'You need to ensure that your letter will be read by someone
who has the power and authority to make a decision.'
Include the words ‘I am writing to complain…’ as there is a legal requirement on organisations to respond to complaints. In my experience, negative feedback letters are simply read and filed, probably in a bin, whereas letters of complaint are logged and have to be acted on, so in your letter of complaint you need to say you are doing so. The organisation is then required to respond.
However complex your case is, keep your request specific, whether for information or an action. Make it as simple and achievable as possible. If you can offer a solution or a course of action, that’s even better. Managers often feel reassured when they have an answer to a problem presented to them and are more inclined to be cooperative and work with you.
Sometimes it makes sense to write a sequence of letters, rather than deal with the whole issue in just one extended letter. In one case we had with the police, I wrote a short letter every week for a couple of months. In each, I made a different Freedom of Information request linked to my initial complaint to ask a very simple question that required analysis of police data. The message was clear, I was not giving up on the main issue. In the end, from their perspective, I was costing them so much employee time responding to my letters that the case was eventually addressed and we received a formal apology and total vindication.
It is likely, at some stage, you may need to escalate your complaint. In those cases your letter is likely to be read by someone such as a local councillor who may not have the skills, time or inclination to understand what your problem is. Make it easy for them to follow up your case by being very clear about the nature of the problem from the outset, and the solution you require.
Keep to the facts. Look for evidence of where policies and procedures have not been followed and reference these policies to substantiate your case. We’ve queried the heavy-handed approach of a psychiatrist towards our son, and so we looked at the Code of Ethics for Psychiatrists to identify areas where we felt good practice was not followed. This was enough to demonstrate to the psychiatrist that we were aware what constituted good practice and wouldn't be satisfied with an inadequate response.
Keep notes of meetings and telephone calls with social workers or care organisations. At the end of each of those meetings, we summarise the key points and send minutes to the parties involved and we ask them to respond if they feel there is an error in our notes. Usually, they don’t. But it has helped us on more than one occasion to have a written record, so that if actions are not taken, for whatever reason, we have this written record to request the action is taken.
'Make it easy for them to follow up your case by being very clear about the nature of the problem from the outset, and the solution you require.'
Add a timeframe to an action. This concentrates minds and gives everyone a deadline for further action, whether it's you following up with them, or them to complete the requested action. If they know you are going to follow up at the end of each timeframe, they are more likely to respond more quickly. Adding ‘You agreed to this course of action, and it hasn’t happened. Why not?’ can be a difficult question for an authority to answer and it generates lots of work for them.
Sample letter of complaint
Contact details, reference numbers, the name of the subject of the letter
Dear (named person in the organisation),
I am writing to complain about (specific issue with precise details).
The negative consequences of your actions have been (to cause pain, create problems, create further difficulties etc.).
I have looked at (your policies/ website/ government legislation) and these are the ways in which I feel I or my loved one has not been treated correctly by your rules (give precise details).
I would like you to (arrange a meeting, resolve the issue in this way, explain why you have not met your own targets, give me a reason why the situation arose etc.).
You may contact me at the address or telephone number above.
In addition, I would like to draw your attention to (errors on the website, grammatical errors in the letters etc. This bit is not essential, but I find it has helped to escalate our letters).
I would like to thank you for your consideration in this matter and expect to hear from you by (offer a reasonable time frame – three weeks is more than fair).
(sign your name, and write it again in full)
Add your address again, especially if the organisation has a history of non-response.
Cc relevant people to whom you have sent or intend to send a copy of your letter of complaint.
Choose your battles with organisations and only persist when it is absolutely essential that you do so. No matter how well written your letters, often you need to recognise when to give up. It’s tempting to visit rage on someone who, to your mind, is being obtuse and stupid. Don't.
Keep in mind that even when writing to highlight that something has not been carried out sensitively or correctly, it may not change the outcome. You may have to retire gracefully if continuing the correspondence is making you stressed and the issue is not critical.
It’s with a note of sadness to think that as carers we need to develop strategies to cope with the professions who are there to support us, but the reality is that with overstretched budgets, high turnover of staff and inadequate services, an ability to fight your case with all the tools in the armoury is probably the only way to receive decent care for our loved ones.
Good luck in your own battles.
This article was first published in the SoA Writers As Carers group newsletter. Are you a professional writer with caring responsibilities for someone with an illness or disability? If so, you might wish to join this SoA support group that aims to help keep writers writing. Find out more
Janis Griffiths is a recently-retired teacher but has always written for pleasure and publication. She's had a variety of things published, journalism in She magazine and The Guardian, as well as short stories in a range of publications. Her focus for the last twenty years or so has been on editing and creating educational materials: textbooks, websites, worksheets, examining board work and teacher guidance materials in Sociology and Psychology. She hopes to return to her creative side, with more than one half-finished novel awaiting attention and completion, but she's still spending too much time fighting for carer's rights as well as monitoring the welfare of their son, Will.