Business Letter Format and Ethics Administrative Policy Writing Spring 2011
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Part I: Business Letters in Administrative Policy Writing
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Overview • This week: the basic style and conventions used in administrative policy writing. • The “business letter” is the standard medium for formal written communications to and from governmental bodies. • Yes, even in the age of email! • Thus, to participate in public policy writing, you must be able to follow business letter conventions.
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Overview • Writing a business letter is really pretty simple. • But there is more to this kind of communication than is immediately apparent. • It is not just about having the parts in the right place. • Writing an effective business letter is about conveying a sense of credibility. • Unspoken elements that make a reader take you and your letter seriously.
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Overview • Business letters are used in a variety of public policy contexts: • Letter explaining a law or official program to a member of the public. • Letter requesting a licensed person or regulated industry to take some action. • A notice of violation letter. • A letter from one governmental body to another. • We will look at examples of some of these at the end of today’s presentation.
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Business Letter as Formal Communication • The business letter is a form: a shell or template for formal correspondence. • It is used when something more formal than a quick email is needed: • Government alleges that X Corp. violated the law. Or X Corp. denies violating the law. • You would not dash this off in a quick email. • The elements of professional style we talked about earlier are important in a business letter.
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Recap Professional Style • Resist the informal conventions of email or texting. • Sarcasm, jokes • Contractions • Incomplete or run-on sentences • Assume that whatever you are writing is public information. • Focus on facts rather than opinions or beliefs • Be concise. • Avoid laying blame for issues, unless you must. • Be polite. • Proofread!
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Parts of a Business Letter • Sender’s address • Date • Inside address • Subject line • Salutations • Body • Closing • Signature block • Final notations
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Sender’s Address • For both private businesses and governmental bodies, most official correspondence is written under a standard letterhead that includes the sender’s identity and address. • The sender’s address is not just a matter of form. It has an important persuasive function (especially in the governmental context). • Establish authority and ethos of the sender. • Making the letter more likely to be read carefully and given serious attention. • People generally take letters more seriously than email. • If you received a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice, what would you do?
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Date • The date usually appears under the sender’s address or letterhead. • Block style has it left-justified. • Modified block has it in centered. • Normal practice is to spell out the month: • January 2, 2011. • What does the date mean? The date should be the date the letter is delivered, not the date it was written. • This is very important. Why?
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Date • The date a letter is mailed is often of critical importance, especially in the government. • Suppose the letter is a notice of violation sent by OSHA to a company. • When that company received notice of the violations documented in the letter may have legal implications later down the road. • It may become evidence in a lawsuit brought by the government or some private individual.
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Date • It may end up costing that company thousands or even millions of dollars! • So always, always make sure the date is correct, and never “back-date” or otherwise falsify the date. • Think of your letter as an exhibit at a trial. • You don’t have to fret over it. Just make sure it is right.
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Inside Address • The inside address includes the name, title, and address of the recipient. • Often the sender will also note the method of delivery near the inside address. • Always use Mr. or Ms., or whatever appropriate title they hold: • Dr., Rev., Hon., • Always capitalize their title. • Include their complete address. • Include the full name of their business organization or other entity. Abbreviation is ok here. • Exxon Mobil Corp. (Corporation) • Council on Foreign Relations • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency • BP Products North America, Inc. (Corporation)
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Subject Line • The subject line is like the “RE:” in a memo or email. • Normal practice is to write “Re:” or “RE:” in a business letter as well. • Purpose is to orient the reader to the subject. If there is a number associated with the person or entity at issue, that number should appear in the subject line. • Make it easier to organize or find later by file number, case number, etc.
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 The subject of this letter is a request for an opinion.
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Salutation • This part is simple. • “Dear Ms. Jones:” • “Dear Dr. Snodgrass:” • Always a colon after the name.
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Body • The body paragraphs convey the substance of the letter. • In general, keep body paragraphs short. No more than a few sentences. • It is usually a good idea to begin the letter with enough background information for the reader to understand your subject. • Unless the letter is part of an on-going conversation, it is a good idea to assume the reader doesn’t know (or at least doesn’t immediately remember) what you are talking about.
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Body • If it is a letter written in response to a prior communication, reference that prior communication in the opening paragraph (especially if you want to document that the prior communication happened). • Often the subject of a letter from a governmental entity will apply a particular rule or statute to a situation. Clearly show what facts apply to what rules, and state them separately: • Rule says X. You did Y. Y violated X because … • Longer letters should be divided into logical headings and subheadings. • Sometimes you will see body paragraphs “fully justified”; sometimes “ragged right.”
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Closing • Business letters usually close with some kind of invitation to further discussion. • “If you have further questions, please do not hesitate to call me.”
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Signature Block • Always use “Sincerely” • Followed with a comma. • The sender’s name goes four spaces below. • Usually, the sender’s title goes below their name. • Block format: signature justified left. • Modified block: signature centered.
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Final Notations • Notes regarding enclosures (i.e., attachments) and copies of the letter appear below the signature block. “Encl:” or “Enclosure:” • Sometimes writers will provide a description of the enclosure as well: Encl: Permit Application. • To indicate that the letter is being sent to additional recipients, use “cc:” • Often the “cc” will have some indication of the person’s title: cc: Tony Hayward, President, BP Products, Inc. • Typist initials appear if the letter is typed by someone other than the person who wrote it.
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Examples • Go to: http://www.tbpe.state.tx.us/nm/pa10_responseletter.pdf • Go to: http://www.cdphe.state.co.us/hm/cotter/letterfromcotter/080926resp2NOV.pdf
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Part II: Ethical Issues for State Officers and Employees
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Introduction • State employees have unique obligations as stewards of taxpayer resources and in the administration of state law. • The public has entrusted state agencies with the responsibility to ensure that taxpayer money is spent properly and that the law is applied impartially. • Thus, state employees are subject to ethics laws that are not imposed on employees of private companies. • We are only going to talk about three ethical principles. • My purpose is for you to be generally aware of these concepts and how they influence administrative policy writing. • You do not have to memorize these rules, and you will not be tested on them.
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Introduction • The Texas Ethics Commission is the state agency responsible for administering the ethics laws that govern state employees and state officials. • Website: http://www.ethics.state.tx.us/ • The commission regulates campaign contributions, investigates government corruption, and issues advisory opinions interpreting the ethics laws. • The commission publishes a short document called “A Guide to Ethics Laws for State Officers and Employees.” • We will be using this guide in the project for this week. • You are responsible for the Introduction, Part I, Part II, and Part III. (It is only six pages.)
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Introduction • Three concepts we are covering: • General Standards of Conduct and Conflict of Interest • Acceptance of Benefits • Abuse of Office
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 General Standards of Conduct
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 General Standards of Conduct • Look at (1) • Accepting benefits (of any kind) • That might reasonably tend to influence the employee in the discharge of official duties or that the employee knows or should know is being offered with the intent to influence their decision. • But notice the Guide says you should also avoid a benefit that “might tend to reasonably influence” a decision or even one that you know is offered to influence a decision, even if it doesn’t. • Notice how it doesn’t matter who is offering the benefit. • This is about avoiding the appearance of a bribe or conflict of interest even if the person accepting the benefit is not actually agreeing to do anything in return.
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 General Standards of Conduct • Look at (3) • Accepting other employment or compensation that could reasonably be expected to impair the employee’s independence of judgment in the performance of their official duties. • Again, an employee should not accept an outside job even if it does not actually impair their judgment. • It is not about what the person receiving the benefit is thinking. It is about what a reasonable person would say the person offering the benefit is thinking. • That is the key to understanding this rule. Sometimes called the “appearance of impropriety.”
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Bribery and Acceptance of Benefits • The second rule is the concept of bribery. • Bribery is a crime in Texas. • Generally speaking, bribery occurs when a public servant asks for or accepts a benefit in exchange for a decision, opinion, recommendation, or exercise of other official duty. • In addition, a public servant cannot accept a gift from a person the public servant knows to be subject to regulation, inspection, or investigation by the public servant or his/her agency. Even if the person giving the gift isn’t asking for anything in return. • Bottom line: public employees cannot accept any kind of benefit or gift from people or organizations they regulate.
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Acceptance of Benefits • Exceptions. • Many of the exceptions to the rule on accepting benefits listed in the Guide apply mainly to lobbying activities. • Let’s look at two that have more general application:
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Acceptance of Benefits • Obviously you can still accept birthday presents from your friends. The key is the purpose for which they are given. • You can also work in some other capacity while you are a state employee and accept money for that work. But the money you receive must be for the work you actually perform.
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Acceptance of Benefits • So what does unauthorized acceptance of benefits look like? • A police officer pulls over restaurant owner for speeding. After providing his license and proof of insurance, the restaurant owner offers to give the officer a $20 gift card to his restaurant in order to let him go with a warning. The officer accepts the gift card and lets him go. • Does this violate the ethics guidelines?
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Acceptance of Benefits • A commissioner of the Texas Dental Board has a friend with a friend who is preparing to take the dentist licensing exam. Out of the blue, the Commissioner’s friend sends the Commissioner a new digital camera worth $500 with no explanation. The Commissioner accepts the camera thinking to himself that accepting this gift will in no way influence the friend’s license. • Does this violate the rules in the Guide? • Do you think it matters if the commissioner knows that the friend-of-a-friend is applying to be a dentist? • What could the commissioner ask or document before accepting the gift?
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Abuse of Office • The third ethical rule from the Guide we are covering is called “abuse of office.” • This means misuse of government property or information. • Misuse simply means using it in a way that it was not intended to be used. • Not just stealing – taking something belonging to the state for yourself. • It would also be misuse to give property or information to someone who is not entitled to it.
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Abuse of Office • Jane works for Travis County as a social worker. She handles cases involving people dealing with substance abuse, and often works long hours. In order to advance her career, Jane is attending school part-time to get a Ph.D. in social work. Working and going to schools has forced Jane to juggle many responsibilities at once. She has to do her reading and homework whenever she has a free moment. Because one of her classes meets right after she gets off work, she does not have time to go home. So Jane typically prints out her assignments and papers at the office printer. A long paper can be up to 50 pages. • Is this abuse of office?
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Abuse of Office • Frank works for the Health Department food handling division. This division conducts sanitation inspections of restaurants and other establishments that prepare food for customers. The department conducts a number of unannounced investigations of restaurants every month. The purpose of the unannounced investigation is to get a snap shot of the actual day-to-day operations of the restaurant when the owners do not expect an investigation. One day Frank was looking at the list of restaurants that were due for an unannounced investigation and spotted his friend’s coffee shop on the list. His friend had recently opened this coffee shop and was struggling to become established. Frank worried that a negative report from the Health Department could do him in, so he called his friend to alert him that his coffee shop was on the list. • Abuse of office?
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Summary • Administrative policy writing is a unique genre of writing because it is an expression of government power. • Thus, it is serious business. Not just for elected officials, but for everyone who writes on behalf of the government. • The business letter is the standard medium for conveying more formal communications. • When writing a business letter in a public policy context, writers should always think of the additional scrutiny that is applied to their work. • Professionalism: they must write presuming that their correspondence is open to the public. • Ethics: they must think about the appearance of improper dealings, even if their motives are pure: accepting benefits and abuse of office.
Administrative Policy WritingSpring 2011 Summary • Questions? • Comments?