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Friday, 20 March 2015

80. Four ways to make council reports more digestible

This post is a further follow up from the excellent Notwestminster event.  Check out the website to see how other stuff is progressing.

Specifically this post is about the number one ‘something we need to fix’ from the User Stories for Local Democracy workshop:

As a local resident I need to see council reports in a form I can easily digest so I can understand the decisions that are being made

Here are four suggestions that we might want to work on and develop.  I would love to hear your thoughts.  I would particularly love to hear examples of people doing any of this already.

1. Use video for reports

This is a suggestion from John Popham who discusses it on video here in true ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ style.

2. A style guide for council reports

While style guides are a normal part of providing content for the web, it's less obvious that people refer to them when writing council reports.  Often we forget that we are writing for a public audience and instead have councillors and fellow professionals in our minds.

Common gripes include:

  • Use of jargon (either unnecessarily or without explanation where technical terms do need to be used) -Councillor David Harrington mentioned this one.
  • Acronyms (for some reason Education reports seem to particularly suffer from this)
  • Saying ‘members’ instead of ‘councillors’
  • An unnecessarily wordy of formal style (often people assume this is how reports should be written as it’s the way that they always have been)

There are corporate style guides that councils use but these but I'm not sure how widespread they are or how much attention people pay to them.  What’s needed, perhaps, is a consistent set of golden rules that are used when writing reports.  If these were visible then the public would be clear about what to expect.

As Sarah Lay suggests, we could build on the LocalGovDigital content standards to do this.

3. Short summaries

Linked to the idea of a style guide, a short summary at the top of every report (and agenda pack, letter etc) that explains in plain language what the report is about might help people to understand quickly and easily what is being discussed.  This was suggested by Diane Sims.

This is nothing new in terms of writing for the web but it’s not often part of council reports.

Following the Notwestminster event we have introduced summaries for all of our scrutiny publications in Swansea.  We write them all to the same format and place them at the top of the documents and on the webpage when they are published..  A couple of examples:

This is the review report by the Children, Young People and Learning Overview and Scrutiny Board about literacy in children and young people. It contains conclusions and recommendations. 
This is the agenda pack for a meeting of Schools Performance Scrutiny Inquiry Panel taking place on the 19 February 2015.  The main items are update on Casllwchwr Primary School, school categorisation, and how schools have used their Pupil Deprivation Grant. Background reports are included. 
This is a letter from the Schools Performance Scrutiny Panel to the Cabinet Member for Education following the meeting of the Panel on the 11 December 2014.  It is about Annual Education Performance.  It includes conclusions and proposals.

4.     Policy pages

Rather than simply inserting summaries into reports we could produce public summaries of entire policy areas making it easy for people to see what the issues are about and understand the decisions being made.  This was suggested by Ed Hammond from the Centre for Public Scrutiny.

This is something that gov.uk already do - you can see an example here.

The advantage of this is that we can cook up an appetising meal of reports rather than leave people to digest them one by one.

Whaddya reckon?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for including my contribution, Dave.

I am surprised that summaries of reports are not a standard requirement. They were in the last local authority I worked for 800 years ago ��

Dave Mckenna said...

Maybe they are in many places - I know that summary boxes tend to be standard but are not necessarily written with the public in mind - they can be quite tricky to decipher.

Would be good to see any good practice.

James McLaughlin said...

Excellent ideas, Dave. If I was an Exec Member, I would want to do something similar to John's video to take a delegated decision, as well as introduce a report - could really help to diffuse some of the transparency arguments around delegated decisions.

Anonymous said...

When I talked about shareable summaries, I was thinking about something that's short enough to tweet. My comment was in part related to something from the Open Data session at #notwestminster about giving each decision its own link: https://twitter.com/LDBytes/status/564037513934028800

Seeing the summary examples here, I realise how much of a challenge it is to fit the report summary and the link in a tweet.

The other thing I talked about was perhaps using a variety of formats. So the thing we tweet could be text or it could be an infographic, a video, an audio clip - or something else.

I'd love to have a summary box and social sharing buttons along with every report, to make it really easy for people to share things.

Then we can make a start on sorting out the ruddy report itself...

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