Webinar presenters Emily LaGratta and Jim Newman answered a number of your questions after their presentation, Communicating for Trust Building. Here are just a few of their responses.
Audience Question: Melissa asks are you seeing any courts or court-related agencies working to make their written materials more conversational? She comments here that she thinks we do that with their oral communications but the written documents are terribly high level. What are your thoughts?
Jim Newman: We actually know of a number of agencies that have gone through the exercise of changing of all of their documentation and even one agency that worked with the court to help rewrite the conditions of probation, as they were presented to the client. If you want to e-mail me, I’ll be happy to give you that information and connect you with them. As a matter of fact, we did a webinar with them earlier this year, talking about how they did it and things like that. I’m happy to share that information with you.
Emily LaGratta: I agree with Jim. We’ve definitely seen that sometimes courts have “forms committees” that bubble up, either as part of an access to justice type initiative that the court is undertaking or as part of an effort that finally got some traction and some energy. I would recommend a great study that was done called The Washington Judicial Colloquies Project. The study assessed both oral plain language edits as well as written plain language edits within a juvenile probation context. The results are really compelling.
Audience Question: Emily, this ties in. I vaguely remember hearing about some redesign work that some jurisdictions were doing — even on simple things like the readability of tickets or court hearing notices, Does this all tie together?
Emily LaGratta: Absolutely. Some courts have taken this as a way to reduce failures to appear and many jurisdictions have produced some really promising statistics. New York City is one of them following the redesign of their summons form. Those efforts reflect the diagnostic approach we mentioned here: look at every key contact between your agency and the public, especially those most important ones where you’re really trying to secure cooperation and compliance or start to build a relationship with a new participant. That’s probably where you’re going to have the biggest impact when you are able to apply some of these plain language and other trust-building elements.
Jim Newman: I’d like to point out one thing. This goes beyond just the form or the sign and things like that. A lot of you are using different types of technologies, kiosks, or other types of things like that to communicate with clients or ask questions. One of the things that you need to make sure is it’s really any client-facing item that you need to look at and consider rewriting. It’s not just paper. It’s also your electronic information and things like the form that you put it on your website, or the application your client uses.
Audience Question: You know, I vaguely remember back in the day when I was working in organizations, we used to have any new employee read through our materials to make sure everything was still readable and understandable to somebody who was not inside the organization. Has either of you seen agencies implement that very simple approach to making sure that everything is still readable to an outsider?
Emily LaGratta: I love that example, and I just wrote it down as something to suggest, I think this has been a challenge for many agencies. One thing that we talk about within the procedural justice field because the participant perspective is so critical, is how can you actually bring participants back into that editing process, whether it’s having them help pilot test new resources or provide feedback on current or forecasted practices. Seeking customer feedback isn’t always included in how government works but it’s very valuable.
Audience Question: How do you build trust with the client when they only hear bits and pieces of a sentence? So, for example, they only hear the judge say inactive probation, but they miss the judge saying active probation with the conditions when completed then the probation to go inactive. What’s your advice when people, and I don’t want to say selectively hear something, but they don’t seem to get the whole context of the message?
Jim Newman: One of the things that we’ve seen is to provide a lot of follow-up to what they hear. It and supporting that follow up with straightforward, very matter of fact, very understandable, written documents that lay out conditions. You have to tell them, , “you’ve got to listen to the whole thing.” But reinforcing what was said from the bench, needs to be done in writing, in a clear and precise way so that the client gets that total understanding. Because remember, they’re sitting in a courtroom and a lot of times they’re afraid. They may be only hearing what they want to hear, but they really need to have the whole story.
Emily LaGratta: I’ll just add: at first, I thought that was a crack at my audio connection. You can only hear bits and pieces of me! I apologize for that, but I’ll add that I do think if there’s a step in the process – whether it’s a judge or an intake where someone can ask participants about their understanding of what just happened – it can be such a meaningful check on what they did hear and what they misheard. It’s giving voice to them. It might take more time but you get to find out, right upfront, what misunderstanding occurred. It is also is a way for your staff to convey that misunderstanding is reasonable. It’s not because you’re stupid. It’s not because you should have been listening better or that it’s your fault you didn’t get it. We work in a complicated field so having a step to confirm that understanding, especially in their own words, can be really worthwhile.
Audience Question: Several people are asking if you can elaborate on neutral decision making. And I wasn’t sure if this was something that you’re going to be talking about in next year’s webinar but if you could, could you explain that term again, neutral decision making?
Emily LaGratta: Sure. This is a thorny one, so I’ll do my best. The key to neutral decision making is that you need to have your decision making appear to be neutral. Now, that doesn’t mean we’re trying to trick anyone. Hopefully, your processes are unbiased. If you do the same thing with every client, you can say that, right? Even if that’s true, it doesn’t mean someone can’t come to the wrong conclusion. ‘Oh, they’re only giving me a curfew because I’m a young man’ or ‘they’re only doing that because I’m a person of color.’ So being transparent about how you came to your decision, showing that it was unbiased, that’s how you convey neutral decision making. Now, it’s a whole other conversation to address what happens when some of the procedures or outcomes are biased. But for all of those processes and decisions that you know to be neutral, that’s what we want to make sure to use transparency to prove it. Show people. Don’t let them come to the wrong conclusion about what influenced your decision.
Audience Question: It absolutely does, so then how do you balance that sameness with individualizing responses for behavior modification?
Emily LaGratta: In the beginning of the presentation, you may recall that I said this framework works for everybody. That is supported by these studies. The four elements are truly independent of race, gender, or age. That’s a really nice feature, right? The framework doesn’t change based on who you’re working with. I am not advising, though, that you should throw out all of those other effective strategies you have to provide individualized treatment or supervision. So you’ll have to reconcile those. For example, delivering respect to one person may, in fact, look a little different based on their age or their community or what their interests are, right? So the application should be individualized but the framework is consistent.
Audience Question: So how does a person’s life experience, their mental state, or the filters that they have, they see the world through, how does that affect how the probationer or the client receives the message that you might be trying to share? And I’m guessing that’s probably would be better for Emily.
Emily LaGratta: I love that question because I think it reflects how you’re getting into the topic. There are so many layers to how individuals come into our system, what they think of us before we’ve even opened our mouths in that first contact. While the framework is the same for everyone, we do know from countless studies that individuals, for example, from racial and ethnic minority groups have lower baseline trust in the justice system than their white counterparts. And so, that is going to affect the level that you’re building from. When I’m feeling optimistic about this, to me, that means there’s more room for improvement and more opportunity. There might be an opportunity to pleasantly interrupt people’s assumptions about the treatment they’re about to get. So, if there are very negative perceptions, based in fact perhaps, based on bad experiences with other justice actors, you can interrupt that. You can spur that, ‘Huh? I wasn’t expecting that. No one’s ever shown me that level of respect.’ Of course, it’s extremely complicated, and we don’t have enough time today to get into that fully, but I appreciate all of you wrestling with what you may know to be deep seeds of mistrust that are preexisting within the communities you’re serving.
Audience Question: Some people think that only “real work” or real connection with clients can really only happen in-person meetings or in-person communication. How are you all seeing these attitudes change, especially in light of the pandemic?
Jim Newman: Yeah, it’s interesting. I’ll relate this to something that affects me on a daily basis. My wife’s a school teacher and she’s learning how to do this remotely. She’s struggling, I mean, she’s got, better than 30 years’ experience being in a classroom. Things have changed. I mean 6, 8 months ago, we weren’t really as worried about this. We saw the industry move, the low-risk population typically to some sort of an electronic form, and we’re able to monitor that. The replacement of face-to-face contact for the individuals that you determine that really need it, we’re not advocating that you do that. In today’s world, technology is going to keep you safe. It’s going to keep you healthy. There are multiple ways that you can do that same thing without having them in front of you. That’s why I brought up the live meetings, and a couple of the other things. What we see, and we have evidence of with a number of customers, — one of, which is on the webinar and uses some of our technology to augment face-to-face meetings to gain better insight to what their clients are thinking and getting information more quickly.. Because just seeing them once a month, may not be enough even for a low risk. So, getting that quicker timetable, the ability to put out messages, and the ability to put out positive reinforcement to them all are things that can be done with technology because you don’t have time to do those kinds of things as an officer. So really, look at it as a tool, not a replacement.
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