A Guide to Great Investigative Reports

Last month we discussed the importance of a properly conducted regulatory investigation and some of the challenges involved with getting them right. In this article, we will discuss the equally difficult task of presenting the data and information gathered during the investigative phase into a logical, coherent, well-documented and comprehensible written report. The best investigative effort in the world is worthless unless it can be put into a form that communicates effectively.

Writer’s Block
Many highly competent and supremely confident investigators dissolve into sniffling scriveners when asked to put their findings down on paper. Gathering information and reporting it involves distinct skills. For the investigator, the reward comes from solving the case and getting the data. Writing it up is often viewed as laborious and tedious. One tendency is simply to “dash it off” and file it so that you can move on to the next interesting investigation. Even worse is the “put it off” procrastination method that leaves the effort to the last possible moment with predictable results. Unfortunately, the reports that emerge from this process produce much head scratching by decision-makers that are compelled to read the work product and, more often than not, leads to regulatory inaction, or worse, erroneous action.

Investigators must understand, therefore, that the report is at least as important as the investigation and deserves equal effort. The good news is that you need not be a Hemmingway to turn out an acceptable document.

One note of caution, however; before you can become a good writer, you must become a good editor. As one wag once put it, “The difference between brilliant writing and gibberish is about 10 drafts.” Anyone who expects to produce a decent report without some gut wrenching revisions of their precious prose is delusional. So our advice is to spew it out on the first cut while ignoring the horrendous spelling mistakes and grammatical gaffes that would have prompted a seizure for your high school English teacher. Then polish relentlessly until you have a product worthy of framing in the Sistine Chapel of regulatory documents.

Report Template
One way to break through writer’s block is to employ a report template that provides a roadmap for organizing the information gathered during an investigation. We’ve developed one such template through trial and error that seems to work fairly well. It provides a logical structure for the report without putting the author into a straightjacket.

The format starts with a summary of the allegations or incidents. The purpose of this section is to provide a brief description of the event that will put the remainder of the report in context. As with each section of the template, we include a list of guidelines for what needs to be included.

•    What happened? How was the incident or allegation discovered or revealed? Where, when and how was it reported?
•    List each allegation or problem area separately.
•    Provide any relevant background information related to the allegations/incident.

The template next requires a chronology of events. Here, the purpose is to place the allegations or incidents into a temporal context. Again, specific guidelines provide direction to the writer.

•    Provide a clear and concise timeline of events related to the allegation/incident.
•    What happened from the time of the immediate precipitating or causal events of the incident or allegation until the time of the investigation? Include date and time of each significant event.
•    What or who is the source of information?

The next section addresses the investigative methods used to gather the relevant information. This enables the reviewer to ascertain whether the investigator used the appropriate techniques for the case and explored adequate avenues of information. Guidelines for this section include the following:

•    Date and time investigation initiated.
•    What physical, written documents, interviews, witness statements and evidence were collected and considered?
•    What licensees/agencies were involved with allegation/incident?
•    What licensees/agencies were notified of the allegation/incident?

Related to the methods section is a detailed list of each person interviewed during the investigation, along with full contact information. This part is especially important if the matter proceeds to a hearing or other formal action.

The next section is perhaps the most critical part of the entire report. Here the investigator must summarize all interviews. Even if the interview was recorded verbatim or the investigator has extensive notes, it remains important to separate the proverbial chaff from the grain and distill the information in an objective and succinct manner. The summary enables the reviewer to quickly discern the key witnesses and to compare the information provided by each. The guidelines stress that certain basic information needs to be provided for each interviewee.

•    Discuss how the individual is connected to the investigation.
•    Identify the date, time and place of the interview.
•    List relevant information obtained in each interview.
•    Discuss in detail what was asked and how the individual responded to the questions by the investigator. If the subject’s statement is contradictory to other statements and/or investigative documentation, note these discrepancies.

Often persons that are interviewed will provide documents or other physical evidence, or will direct the investigator to such items. The next section of the template, therefore, requires detailed information in this regard. All such documents must be identified in the report, and some analysis of their value, credibility and relevance to the matters at issue should be cited. It is important to establish if the documents are original or copies; how, by whom and when these documents were obtained; and what relevance they have to the investigation. Finally, these documents should be assigned an “exhibit number” and be attached to the report under this exhibit number. This must be repeated for each document obtained.

Most regulatory investigations stem from, or originate with, some action—or failure to act—in accord with a requirement embodied in a rule, internal control or other legal mandate. Though investigators are not expected to expound on the law, it is helpful for the report to include citation to the applicable law and specifically the requirements alleged to have been violated or not followed. This enables the reviewer to see at a glance the difference between the standard and what actually occurred.

In the final narrative section of the report, we ask the investigator to state his findings and conclusions. We recognize that some agencies take the Joe Friday approach and limit investigative reports to “only the facts.” However, we find it valuable to have the investigator’s take on the situation. As with other sections, we provide guidelines.

•    Summarize the investigative findings supported by the evidence for all elements of each and every violation found during the investigation.
•    Could the allegation/incident be substantiated, but the cause remains undetermined?
•    Did the licensee respond to the incident in a timely and appropriate manner?
•    Did licensee follow established procedures when responding to and reporting the incident?

The final element of the report is the attachments or appendix. This part contains the raw data and information summarized in the report. If there are voluminous documents, only the most critical need to be physically included in the report, but every item considered should be identified and its location specified. Typical items included are documents reviewed, list of witnesses interviewed, statements taken, policies and procedures at issue, photographs or video, and graphs or charts.

A Final Word
A good written report requires detailed knowledge of the subject and a sound organizational structure. As Hemmingway put it, “Writing is architecture, not interior decoration.” The purpose is to communicate, not entertain or dazzle. It takes time and patience to construct a solid report. So we suggest heeding the advice of the guru of expository writing, William Strunk, Jr., from the classic “The Elements of Style” (if you don’t have a copy, get one and read it—it will improve your writing dramatically): “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

It takes a little extra time, effort and thought to produce a good report. Trust us—it’s worth it, and your readers will thank you.

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