Writing the letters I'd want to receive: how a fast streamer won the 2015 Clarity Award

Anyone who’s ever received correspondence from government will know how frustrating it is to wade through jargon and clumsy phrasing in search of a clear message. 

No one knows this better than Oli Carter, a 22-year-old Fast Streamer, who, at the time of winning a 2015 Civil Service Award, was working with the Commissioning Policy Team at the Department of Health (DH). He was responsible for drafting replies to letters sent to the minister for life sciences.

Carter won the new Clarity Award for his tailored approach to letter writing. He puts this down to a letter he drafted in response to a class of ten-year-old schoolchildren who had written to the prime minister asking for funding for one of their classmates, a boy with a rare medical condition.


 It fell to Carter (pictured second from left) to draft a response from the PM, but his approach wasn’t without opposition. “When we sent the draft back to Number 10, it came back a couple of times with corrections. They wanted the letter to be addressed to the head teacher or have a change of language. One of the hardest bits was to go back and disagree and say I don’t think that’s the right thing to do,” Carter tells CSW.
 
The prime minister’s office wanted the letter to follow the standard line of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence but he tailored it to his young audience — an approach that won him plaudits.
 
It wasn’t just this particular show of capability that led to Carter’s award nomination though. At the DH, one of his main day-to-day tasks involved drafting letters to the public from ministers.
 
“A lot of my work involved replying to grieving families, families who were getting to the point where they are fed up with the usual correspondence channels. So it was about replying in the way that I’d want to be replied to. If I was in that terrible position, having to write to the PM or secretary of state for health, I’d want to receive clarification,” says Carter.
 
For Carter, it is all about knowing your audience, being straight forward, but replying with tact and sympathy. He puts some of this approach down to his not being the “usual Fast Stream candidate”. He didn’t study at Oxford or Cambridge and heralds from a small village outside of Ipswich.
 
The praise he received for his letter writing abilities hasn’t gone to his head. Now with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) working on exports policy, he considers himself lucky to have been the recipient of such an award: “I was totally convinced I wouldn’t win once I had seen the calibre of the nominations. The other two nominees were so dedicated to their roles, and were so effective in executing them.” 

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