What do you want?

02.02.2018

If you're preparing to implement the Homelessness Reduction Act it's worth taking some time to consider how you communicate with homeless people.

An illustration of a pen and speech bubble

It's best to talk face to face. However it's unavoidable that we often have to communicate with service users in writing.

Indeed, the legislation requires those seeking help to be given written information in various situations. And the number of notifications will increase when the 2017 Act takes effect in April.

Forthcoming template documents

In coming weeks I'll be sharing some template letters dealing with the new homelessness duties. I'll make sure to post a blog whenever letters are added to the Resources section. 

Opportunity

At times like these there are loads of document templates floating around. They come from a variety of sources including (ahem) consultants. And you should take advantage of them. Go on, fill your boots!

However before you start uploading those documents I suggest you pause, take a step back and ask:

What do we want to achieve?

It's not often we are forced to have an opportunity to thoroughly review all the written information we produce.

You might want to consider the following issues if you're looking to improve the written information your service provides.

(NB: my main duty acceptance letter illustrates some of the principles discussed in this article - create a free account with a local authority or social landlord email address to access it).

Plain English 

There's a common situation that most of us working in homelessness have experienced. We find ourselves using or reading a letter for a homeless person that uses technical language and legal jargon. Then we wonder how on earth the housing applicant will make sense of it all.

This can be a particular problem with negative decisions. Often decision-makers are not writing primarily for the homeless person but for a legal aid lawyer who might subsequently advise the applicant on how to challenge it. If we're not careful the understandable desire to make decisions 'watertight' can result in letters that are lengthy and verbose. 

Of course the 2017 Act is supposed to shift councils' focus away from whether the applicant falls into a qualifying category. The new rules will mean that helping applicants takes centre stage. Fewer adverse decisions will need to be notified, particularly in relation to priority need and intentionality.

But the litigious nature of homelessness will continue to impact upon how councils operate. There will still be situations where councils need to make sure negative decisions can withstand scrutiny from a legal advisor.

But is there any reason we can't use plain English when notifying decisions?

It's worth considering how our standard letters encourage decision-makers to communicate with homeless applicants. For example:

  • Do we need to pepper our decision letters with references to sections and subsections from the Housing Act?
  • Do we need to refer to case law? And if we do cite a particular case - to make clear we've interpreted the facts by reference to it - do we need to include the case citation?
  • Do we really need to mention that the 1996 Act has been amended by the 2002, 2011 or 2017 Act?

Of course the homeless person really doesn't care about such things (although they need to be told why a negative decision has been made - preferably briefly).

The simple truth is that using plain English doesn't make our decisions any more vulnerable to being successfully appealed.

Expressing ourselves clearly and concisely does sometimes however require a change in mindset and practice.

Making sure that your standard letters use plain English can facilitate that change. Decision-makers can then be encouraged to continue in the same vein when they're amending and adding to them.

The Plain English Campaign provides some excellent practical guidance on using plain English.

Not trying to do the decision-maker's job for them

We all have our preferences when it comes to drafting styles and layout. If you're a homeless manager you'll doubtless prefer one set of letter templates over another.

But there's one thing you should guard against. This is the tendency for some drafters to provide standardised text for summarising facts and how those facts have been interpreted.

Sure the drafter is trying to be helpful. And passages of text that provide examples of how a particular legal test can be applied to an example set of facts (so called 'inserts') can be useful, for example when training staff on how to write lawful decisions.

But wherever possible we should be ensuring decision-makers approach each case afresh and with an open mind. Their decisions will be better (and will result in fewer reviews and complaints) if:

  • they're required to have a good understanding of the public law principles governing what constitutes a 'good' decision
  • they're practised in quickly summarising how they've interpreted facts by reference to the relevant legal tests (rather than simply cut and pasting inserts written by someone else).

Training and guidance

This all takes time you might say. Well, yes. And it will often require training, supervision and guidance. Homeless officers are sometimes expected to automatically acquire the interpretive and drafting skills that are necessary for constructing quasi-judicial decisions. How this is expected to happen isn't always quite clear. Unfortunately osmosis doesn't seem to help.

As already mentioned, a positive consequence of the Homelessness Reduction Act will be a fall in the number of negative decisions. But this can present its own challenges. Some homeless managers in Wales found that the welcome focus on helping people find accommodation meant that the necessary skills for making and drafting negative decisions were in danger of being lost.

Bite-size

How we structure written information is important. Not least because it affects whether the reader can easily:

  • navigate the contents and find what they're looking for, and
  • understand what's being said.

I've adopted a question and answer format when writing letters for the new Act. This can help make information more intelligible by breaking up what could be impenetrable portions of text.

The trick is to make the questions mirror what the applicant would most likely ask, while enabling you to communicate essential information.

Telling customers how to challenge and complain

The statutory guidance suggests we should be telling applicants how they can get independent advice. Most homeless managers realise services are improved when our actions are challenged by independent advocates.

For this reason I usually include a section headed "Can I get independent legal advice?" in each template letter for housing applicants. And then confirming how to access such help; locally, by phone and online.

Utilising what's online

As well as letters there are the leaflets we use and other generic information. We should of course be using the internet to facilitate early and effective intervention. Many service users nowadays obtain information online, often via their phones.

If we're going to be emailing written notifications as well as posting them (and if not, why not?) let's make sure there are hyperlinks to sources of advice that are reliable and regularly updated. Using sites such as Shelter and Citizens Advice can help to demonstrate transparency, while saving time.

Don't assume you know best

Some Welsh councils benefited greatly from consulting homeless people when reconfiguring their services in 2015. Getting feedback from end users makes it less likely you'll have to revisit and rewrite your written materials. And service users will often suggest better ways of doing things that we haven't previously considered.

So those are some things I'd suggest you consider. They came from a list of 'guiding principles' I've helped councils to develop when preparing documents around the new Act. Leave a comment if you think I've missed some important things out, or if you have any experiences you'd like to share.

Use my templates if you want. Compare them to the others out there. But do consider what you're trying to achieve first.

Comments

    Sign up for updates

    Receive the latest updates in your inbox. If you're already registered, enter your email to modify the updates you receive.