What are the causes of the problems associated with civil forfeiture presented in the case? What are the possible ways to prevent such problems from happeniWritingeffectivememos.pdfmemo
The goal of the case studies is to improve your ability to think about a complex scenario, and write a short and concise analysis of this situation – no more than 1 page, single spaced, Times New Roman, 12-point font, 1 inch margins. Memos should be uploaded to Canvas, and no hand-written work will be accepted. The memos should display a critical analysis of the main issues of the case, not a summary. A good way to get to the heart of a case is to try and summarize the story in case in one sentence. You can assume that I know the basic details of the case.
Case 3: Civil Forfeiture
Stillman, Sarah. 2013. Taken. The New Yorker.
What are the causes of the problems associated with civil forfeiture presented in the case?
What are the possible ways to prevent such problems from happeni
Case Teaching Resources F R O M T H E E V A N S S C H O O L O F P U B L I C A F F A I R S
T h e
E l e c t r o n i c H a l l w a y ®
Box 353060 · Universi ty of Washington · Seattle WA 98195-3060 www.hallway.org
________________________________________________________________________________________________ This teaching resource was prepared by John Boehrer, senior consulting editor for The Electronic Hallway. The Electronic Hallway is administered by the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs. This material may not be altered or copied without written permission from The Electronic Hallway. For permission, email [email protected], or phone (206) 616-8777. Electronic Hallway members are granted copy permission for educational purposes per the Member’s Agreement (www.hallway.org).
Copyright 2003 The Electronic Hallway
WRITING EFFECTIVE MEMOS
Public policy and management graduates report that systematic thinking and effective writing are among the most important products of their schooling. Indeed, their direct, concise communication is a strength often recognized by employers and colleagues. Writing a forceful, straightforward memo is a frequent assignment in public policy and management schools, and it is worthwhile taking the opportunity to sharpen your skill. Here are some suggestions: An effective memo answers a specific request – or meets a perceived need – for information and ideas. Ideas have the greatest impact when the writer aims to make maximum use of limited access to the reader’s attention. When the writer directs attention quickly to the main ideas, expresses them plainly, and makes them stand out, the reader can grasp them the first time through the memo. Three initial steps make writing the memo more systematic and reading it more productive: 1. Analyze the audience: To whom are you writing? Why do they want your
information or ideas? What do they already know? What perspective or opinions do they have? How do they think? Who else might be exposed to what you write? How?
2. Define the subject: What, exactly are you writing about? e.g., “The Fish and
Wildlife Department”? Or, “Reorganization of the Fish and Wildlife Department”? Or, “Recommendations for Improving Efficiency in the Fish and Wildlife Department”? Unlike a letter, a memo has only one unified subject.
3. Determine the purpose: Why are you actually writing the memo? e.g., to encourage
the director to act? Or, to persuade him to adopt a certain policy? Or, to broaden his perception of the alternatives? Or, to compare various risks…?
Accuracy about your subject and purpose is important to both you and your audience, so that you can select and organize effectively, so that they can read and understand efficiently. Announce the subject in the heading of the memo. State the purpose – or imply it clearly – in the opening sentences.
Effective memos combine several important features: • Complete, informative heading: This includes the correct date, the full names and
titles of the writer and addressee, and the accurate subject. Time gives part of the meaning to information and ideas, and every written communication is a record.
• Straightforward, explicit organization: Expressing a clear purpose captures the
reader’s attention. Exposing the outline, e.g., by listing main points, guides the reader through the memo. Explaining reasoning and giving evidence makes your thinking accessible. Summarizing reinforces both your argument and the reader's grasp of it.
• Minimal introduction: This is only what is required to orient the reader to the
subject, provide necessary background, and frame the reader's thinking about your information or ideas.
• Deliberate emphasis: Ideally, the reader can literally see the outline and main points
of your memo. Emphasis comes from section and paragraph headings; capitalization, boldface, and italics; setting off and marking items with bullets, asterisks, letters, numbers, etc. Numbering paragraphs without headings is ineffective: the point is to help the reader see and remember key words and phrases, and to emphasize ranking and order – don’t number unless you mean to so emphasize. Emphasis also comes from repetition, as in summaries.
• Concise expression: Simpler sentences and fewer words make memos clearer and
more convincing. Avoiding the passive voice is the single most effective route to clarity. The following contrast makes this plain:
Passive original – “Effective participation of farmers in the program was achieved by providing a steady and remunerative market for dairy products without which they would not have been induced to increase production and adopt scientific practices.”
Active re-write – “Providing a steady and remunerative market for dairy products motivated farmers to increase production and adopt scientific practices. This response made their participation in the program effective.”
Re-writing to eliminate the passive voice almost always leads to clearer thinking and expression.
• Clean, inviting appearance: The visual impact of your memo affects the reader’s
ability to grasp your ideas quickly and easily. Large, dense blocks of type are intimidating. Reasonable margins and double-spacing, at least between paragraphs, help the reader see. Headings, capitalization, and similar devices lead the eye as well as the mind.
Writing an effective memo is demanding work, but it consists of systematic actions: • Start by thinking clearly. Who is your audience? What are you writing about? Why
are you writing? • Write in order to think. Don't try to edit in your head; think freely on paper. Discover
what you think, and figure out how you can say it clearly. • Re-write for your audience. Strive for clarity, directness, and conciseness.
Cut out what you don't really need. Proofread for accuracy. • Read your writing critically. Adopt your reader’s point of view. Challenge your
writing to be clear and accurate. Show your writing to someone who is unfamiliar with the subject, and ask her to tell you what she doesn’t understand. Then fix it.
Teach i n g Case Reso u r ces f r o m t h e Ev an s Sch o o l o f Pu b l i c Af f a i r s
T h e
E l e c t r o n i c H a l l w a y ®
Box 353060 · University of Washington · Seatt le WA 98195-3060 www.hallway.org
This teaching resource was written by J. Patrick Dobel, Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs, University of Washington; Richard Elmore, Harvard University Graduate School of Education; and Laurie Werner, Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs, University of Washington. The Electronic Hallway is administered by the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs. This material may not be altered or copied without written permission from The Electronic Hallway. For permission, email [email protected], or phone (206) 616-8777. Electronic Hallway members are granted copy permission for educational purposes per the Member’s Agreement (www.hallway.org).
Copyright 2003 The Electronic Hallway
This note introduces memo writing to students training for careers in public service.
It focuses on memos rather than research papers or essays, because memos pervade the
daily life of any public servant.
A memo is a relatively short, written document. Memos address specific people or
groups for the purpose of recording an agreement, transmitting information, making a
case, or enabling action. Brevity is essential; most decision makers have little time and
must assimilate memo contents quickly. Long memos don’t get read.
Think of a memo as a precision tool. Tools may be beautiful things in themselves, but we
measure their value by how well they perform a task. In practical terms, every aspect of a
memo – its prose style, organization, appearance on the page and content – should have a
direct relationship to its purpose. Long flowery introductions, technical jargon, casual
chit-chat, and showy vocabulary all distract from a memo's essential purpose: to inform
or to enable action.
This note deals with four topics: identifying your audience or principal; getting yourself
engaged in writing; using language; and organizing the final product. Added to these are
notes on e-mail communications.
Know Your Audience or Principal
Specific people read memos. The more vaguely defined the target audience, the more
difficult for the writer to decide what to say. Knowing your audience is of primary
importance in memo writing. Ask yourself three questions about your audience: who are
they, what do they need to know, and how should you present it to them?
• Who is the audience of your memo? Memos are directed at decision makers.
Usually you write a memo for an individual or group to help them make a
decision. To influence decision makers, you must give considerable thought to
who they are. You have a duty to provide them with timely, accurate, and
• What do they need to know? To meet the obligations of memo writing, you
should ask: what type of information do they need to make a good decision?
§ Start writing your memo by considering the position of your readers and
their responsibilities, constraints, and pressures. You should keep in mind
how much knowledge they already have and tailor your information to their
level of expertise.
§ Decide how much and what type of information they need to make a good
decision. Keep four things in mind when considering this:
1. Your audience relies on you for accurate and relevant information. This
reliance places strong obligations upon you to choose information well
and present decision makers with all sides of the issues. Unless you are
designated as an advocate or identify yourself as such, you must strive for
an unbiased presentation of the information. Individuals are often tempted
to push their own agendas without regard to the requirements of a good
decision by the principal. This is legitimate when so acknowledged in the
memo. All memos however, should do justice to complex issues and to
your principals. They are making the decision, not you.
2. Provide the bad news as well as the good. You should alert your
principals to the dangers, problems, and implications of decisions, as well
as to the advantages. Although memos drive people toward decisions,
you may have the unhappy but vital duty of telling readers they need more
information to make a good decision. Often memos can only be
summaries of arguments and reports, like the tip of an iceberg. The author
should have supporting arguments and information to provide to the
principals when needed or requested.
3. Before making a recommendation, make sure you have laid out honest
and realistic alternatives. Don't fall into what Henry Kissinger called the
"war, surrender, my way" memo. It violates your responsibility to your
principal, and a thoughtful reader will dismiss your analysis.
4. In recommending a course of action, clearly lay out the reasons.
Anticipate questions, address them honestly, and compare your
recommendation to other options. It is your job to anticipate needs and
support the decision maker.
• How should you present the information to them? Present all information with
economy and clarity. Effectively writing a memo is a task that requires a special
emphasis on clear formatting and accessible writing. Serve the reader’s need to
access information quickly with judicious use of headings and bullets.
How to Get Engaged in Serious Writing
Writing is difficult, frustrating work. As a craft, it entails a set of specific, learnable skills,
and results in a tangible product. The harder you work, and the more determined you are
to master the skills, the better you will become. Like any craft, writing requires practice.
When you sit down to write your memo, two steps will help engage you in writing:
developing a system for writing, and getting help when necessary.
• Because writing is difficult, you need an explicit system for getting started and
finished. Most memo writing is done under pressure. Under these conditions
people can get stalled, confused, and side-tracked by psychological stress. Having
a deliberate system gives you the self-discipline to plunge ahead in the face of this
stress. In the absence of a system, you will find that you spend large amounts of
time trying to figure out what you're doing. It doesn't matter particularly what
system you use, so long as you have one and use it. Some people start with an
outline and produce progressively finer drafts until they have a finished product.
Some people “dump” everything they know about a given subject and then start
culling and sorting, until they produce a coherent piece. Others begin with a few
simple statements or assertions and then frame an argument around them.
Experiment with a variety of methods, until you find one that suits your
• If you are having genuine difficulty and find that you don't know what to do, get
help. Writing workshops are plentiful. Get together with a group of students for
the express purpose of talking about writing problems. Get suggestions from your
professors. Don't retreat from the problem. You will need to write well in every
job you have.
Using the Language
Remember that your written work presents you to others. Your use of language will
shape their assessment of you. Sloppy phrasing, bad grammar, and incorrect spelling, for
example, demonstrate unreflective thought. Respecting yourself, your ideas, and your
principal should motivate you to master this essential means of communication. Your
writing should strive for five important qualities: simplicity, straightforward sentence
structure, clarity, clear action and responsibility, and correctness.
Simplicity is the mark of good writing. Complex sentence structure and organization is a
sure sign of confusion or hidden agendas. A well-written memo will be so simple and
straightforward in language and structure that it will leap off the page. Don’t, however,
make the mistake of equating simplicity with ease of production. The harder you work,
the simpler the prose gets: the more you shirk, the muddier it will be. Consider the
Whether it is true or not, and there are strong indications that it is not, the
allegation by the County of substandard performance against the
contractor is premature and certainly serves no useful purpose.
This author tried to write in a “conversational” tone. Conversational language tends to be
more complicated, elliptical, and indeterminate than good written prose. Written prose
has to be edited to be good. Novice writers often respond to tough editing by
complaining, “You've taken all the creative words out of my writing. Now it looks like
something anybody could have written.” In fact, tough editing does exactly the opposite.
It makes your writing very distinctive. Remember, the message carries the mark of your
Straightforward sentence structure is essential to clear communication. First, get the
basic elements of the sentence straight: subject, verb, and object. Who is the actor?
What action is the actor performing? On what or whom is the actor acting? What is the
writer's purpose in describing the relationship between actor and action?
The county has accused the contractor of poor performance. This
accusation is premature and possibly untrue.
County, accuse, contractor – these are the elements. By stressing them, we cut the
number of words roughly in half, from 37 to 16. We specified the nature of the action
(accuse); we exchanged bureaucratic fuzz-words (allegation, substandard) for simple
ones (accuse, poor); and we allowed the writer to express some uncertainty about the
conclusions (possibly). The reader now captures the spirit of the writer’s message much
more readily. These are the simplest writing techniques. Strip sentences to their
elements, and make those elements drive your sentences. Subject first, then verb, then
object. Apply the techniques to this example:
With respect to problems of interim financing, and in consideration of the
fact that short-term interest rates are prohibitive, the decision was made by
the Finance Committee that the project should not be pursued beyond
stage three of the design process until appropriate long-term financing can
be secured through established capital market sources.1
Clarity in word choice marks good writing. Clarity means three things: (a) choosing the
right word; (b) preferring simple words or combinations over complex ones; and (c)
avoiding unnecessary technical jargon.
• Choosing the right word is more difficult than it appears. When you begin
writing something, certain stock phrases and terms roll out of your head onto the
paper. These phrases and terms are cues to what you want to say, but often they
1 The Finance Committee considered interest rates for short-term loans too high. It therefore decided not to
pursue the design process beyond stage three until lenders agree to long-term financing. (31 words v. 55)
do not convey what you actually mean. To communicate clearly, sort through
alternative ways of saying what you mean. Get something on paper. Then, use
your vocabulary, the dictionary, or a thesaurus, and deliberately substitute simpler
words for complicated and ambiguous ones. Give special attention to verbs, and
use the active voice.
• Complex phrases that have mushy meanings often litter memos, because writers
get caught in a cycle of “bureaucratese.” Take the following example:
Current fiscal management techniques and control practices are
keyed to the fiscal-year budgeting processes of the government
cycle. They result in inefficient resource utilization because
administrators increase expenditures toward the end of annual
budget cycles in order to assure zero-balance results and reporting,
rather than maximum efficiency in resource utilization.
This example features many quasi-technical terms: “fiscal management
techniques,” “resource utilization,” and “budget cycles.” These are common in
bureaucracy but don't communicate much. In a more active, direct form the
Administrators tend to spend more at the end of the fiscal year,
because they will lose the money they don’t spend. Typically, they
are not allowed to carry money forward into the following year.
This results in expenditures that often are not the best use of public
We've left “fiscal year” in, because it is a technical term that has important
meaning. Beyond that, we stripped out all the quasi-technical terms and replaced
them with simpler words.
Certain complex and mushy words creep into the language of public servants and
become standard usage. Because bureaucrats use these words routinely, the
public begins to think that bureaucrats are evasive. They are probably not – just
insufficiently critical of their own language. Here is a list of some common
bureaucratic words and their standard English equivalents.
Another recent trend has been turning nouns into verbs. The trend started in
computer circles where people “interface” with each other and “multiport” data.
Today public officials “outsource” functions and “task” people to perform jobs.
Such jargon separates public officials from citizens and creates a mystifying and
unnecessary code to hide bureaucrats from accountability.
A similar common practice is turning nouns and verbs into adjectives and running
them together as strange compound words. These words often sound very
important, but mean almost nothing. The following words come directly from the
papers of students trying to sound like bureaucrats:
Nouns into Adjectives Verbs into Adjectives
program initiation diagnostic review
programmatic decision making circumvention practice
definitional terms allocation routine
problem areas elimination criteria
personnel involvement decisional alternative
For each of these compounds, someone took a noun (program, definition,
problem, etc.) or a verb (diagnose, circumvent, decide) and stuck it in front of a
noun, giving it the function of an adjective. You can make adverbs the same way:
programmatically initiated, diagnostically reviewed, etc. This clumping however,
creates unwieldy, often unintelligible, prose and leaves little regard for a word’s
root meaning or function.
The skill required to avoid this kind of clumping is simple. First, learn the
difference between nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Second, don't use
compounds when a simple construction will suffice. Look at a number of
alternative ways of saying something, and choose the simplest way, rather than
jamming words together because they sound authoritative and bureaucratic.
Principals need lucidity, not jargon.
• Technical jargon becomes a barrier to clear communication. When someone
writes, “The purpose of our new thrust is to facilitate a more credible interface
between clients and service deliverers and to indicate to top management how
they ought to prioritize agency functions according to standard management
concepts,” you know he is not writing for real human beings. Fellow citizens will
have a difficult time trying to decipher the jargon. Automatically translate the
words into English. If it doesn't make sense in English, then you have an
important piece of information – the person doesn't know what he is saying. If it
does make sense, then there is a better way to say it.
As trustees of the common good, public officials have a special obligation to write
in language that acknowledges and includes all members of the community.
A civic language should include the entire population. This requires that we avoid
language that limits the citizenry to certain groups and implicitly excludes the rest
of the population. In a more positive way, it obligates us to search for language
that respects and acknowledges all individuals.
Inclusive language, however, does not mean we must resort to awful English.
Only muddled good intentions create these bureaucratic monstrosities: s/he, or
his/her. In this case, inclusive language involves using plural pronouns, using both
pronouns connected by "or" (he or she) or alternating the pronouns by section or
example. The English language is evolving in the attempt to develop a more
inclusive public vocabulary. Public officials should take the lead in this effort
without reducing the language to trendy or bureaucratic neologisms.
Clearly assigning action and responsibility will characterize skilled writing. Bureaucrats
notoriously use language to obscure responsibility. They often think they are being clever
by saying things in a way that hides who is supposed to be doing what. The typical
means of obscuring responsibility are the passive voice and the editorial “we.”
• The classic device to hide responsibility is the passive voice, where the subject is
driven (by the agent). Passive construction diffuses your analysis and backs into
major points. Remember that the strength of the English language resides in verbs.
Use strong, active verbs. A good editor tries to eliminate as many copulatives
(there… is, are, was, were) and we
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