The first new edition of the Commonwealth Style manual since 2002 is in the works

By Stephen Easton

Monday January 14, 2019

The Commonwealth is getting its first new style guide since 2002, courtesy of the Digital Transformation Agency, but not until the end of 2019.

“Imagine a world where all government information — from ministerial briefs to the instructions on a screen — was simple, clear and easy to read,” wrote the DTA’s director of content design and strategy, Libby Varcoe, in a blog post a few days before Christmas.

Her team has done the early research and is preparing to hire experts who will draft the content. Varcoe is optimistic that by year’s end a new guide will bring a return to consistency, save money and possibly end hostilities on a minor front in the culture wars between defenders of the Queen’s English and supporters of simpler standards.

“In our ideal future state, consistency of house style would be the norm (no more arguments about ‘program’ or ‘programme’). Clear written communication would be valued and personal preference wouldn’t be an option because there’d be one credible ‘source of truth’ that stated the rules and provided the evidence for why.”

There were more than few chuckles at the re-introduction of the very British “programme” after the Coalition came to power five years ago. The previous Labor administration couldn’t decide between “preventative” or “preventive” health policies, and provided guidelines for “livable housing” at the same time as running a program (without the ‘e’) to promote “liveable” cities.

The DTA team heard that various “personal style preferences (often from the very top levels of government)” were a regular cause of frustration and wasted time in the public service. Varcoe illustrates this exasperation with an anonymous quote:

“Basically all my life is arguing with people about whether there should be a capital letter.”

The last edition of the Commonwealth Style manual, published by John Wiley & Sons, came out in 2002. It was the first produced by a commercial publisher, costs $35-$50, and is available in hardcopy only from booksellers.

Copies of it are now “rare in most departments” and a lot of young bureaucrats have limited awareness of it, according to the DTA research. Varcoe says it is not used much anymore because it is rather outdated and individual departmental style guides have proliferated as a result.

“Fast forward to our digital world of fast publishing and the need for the Style Manual is greater than ever.

“It also comes with a nice cost-saving to government. A report prepared by the Department of Finance in 2015 costed the potential savings to be between $15.8M and $39.5M based on the then-figure of 79 agencies using the same source, instead of producing their own — noting that most agencies would still need to produce their own style sheets to accommodate common terms.”

Varcoe acknowledges that the new guide will be influential outside the Commonwealth government and says her team is taking this responsibility very seriously, going so far as to refer to the document as a “national treasure” to be protected.

The consultations and user research took in the views of government communications professionals and other public servants who still use the ageing 6th edition, as well as those who don’t.

The DTA team found most public servants would welcome the new guide as a time-saving reference tool, but a small group of “language professionals” want to see the reasoning behind its prescriptions, “to further support their case when they find themselves in an argument over style”.

“For many users, the Style Manual has been a safety net and a companion,” observes Varcoe (opting to capitalise “manual” unlike the title of the 6th edition). “It has helped them to drive the case for quality and consistency.”

The 883 people who joined an online petition for a 7th edition, drawn up by Editors Queensland a few years ago, are no doubt very pleased.

Next comes the actual content, and for that the DTA is going to market. Tenders will soon be requested from experts with the relevant skills and experience, and in the meantime they are invited to send expressions of interest to [email protected].

Home Affairs: transforming the staff experience

Also late in December, the DTA published a tale of internal digital transformation in the Department of Home Affairs, which aimed to improve a very underwhelming online self-service human resources system.

The department’s 23,000 staff were suffering familiar problems with lacklustre online services: “… simple enquiries about pay, leave and conditions that could have been resolved through self-service on MyHR, were being escalated to phone and mailbox channels.”

“Staff were waiting up to several weeks to receive a response to their HR enquiries. It was not uncommon to hear of lost lunch hours spent on hold trying to get through to the HR helpdesk, only to later be directed to send an email.

“Staff stories were backed up by the heightened volume of enquiries recorded by higher cost support channels. Despite this, very little existed in the way of evidence-based data about the problem.

“We also found that the most common problems were counterintuitive site navigation and layout, a poor search function and a global miscomprehension of the content contained on the portal. The content was mainly targeted to HR practitioners, not for general staff hence their confusion and lack of use.”

A multidisciplinary team was formed to iteratively build a new version using “agile Kanban and Scrum methods”, guided by user research and regular testing along the way. According to DHA’s dispatch, the headline lesson is:

“The Digital Service Standard is not just for citizens. It can completely transform the experience for staff engaging with important internal systems and processes, improving staff productivity in the process.”

Another Commonwealth digital transformation to watch is the next phase at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which will shift gear in 2019 with Charles McHardie coming in as new Deputy Secretary to lead business transformation including the veteran centric reform (VCR) program.

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