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1.3.3 Informal Precedent: Unwritten Rules, Word of Mouth

Even when a commission has made an effort to develop a body of precedent on recurring consumer issues, there are often issues that have not been determined by rule or by formal order of the commission but which have been determined by informal precedents consisting of non-binding letter decisions in staff-level dispute resolution proceedings or unwritten practices of the commission in resolving consumer complaints. For example, many commissions have developed informal guidelines for establishing the length of payment plans, that is, how long a payment plan commission staff will allow if a consumer asks the staff to help reach an agreement with the utility. These guidelines may not be written down but simply accumulate over time as the staff mediates between consumers and companies.

Again, access to cooperative staff members is essential for identifying the norms that have been developed. Since by definition these practices have not been adopted formally by the commission, an advocate may not always succeed in arguing that favorable past practices apply in any specific current cases. Conversely, good advocacy can quickly change an unfavorable informal policy, since the commission does not need to open a docket or hold hearings to change informal policies.