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Publishing tips for government bodies going digital by design

Publishing standards make a huge difference to the success of relationships with external and internal stakeholders and how the public sees the institution of government itself. As the federal government continues to undergo a digital transformation, the Department of Finance has released a new good practice guide for public service communicators publishing either online or IRL.

The short document begins with a discussion of the “digital by design” principle, which subordinates printed materials to situations where they are needed to supplement digital publications, or if there is “unavoidable demand” from the target audience, and explains:

“Adopting a digital by design approach will require entities to challenge the way that information has historically been planned, developed, designed and delivered.

Adopting this approach will provide entities with an opportunity to realise significant savings.”

An included case study explains the Department of Health has cut its hard copy printing by 80% in only two years. It reveals Health ran up a printing bill of $9.5 million in 2006-07 — when it was led by Department of Finance secretary Jane Halton — but in 2013-14 managed to get that down to less than $2 million.

Jane Halton
Jane Halton

Halton acknowledged the ongoing pressure annual reports put on those printing costs at the IPAA awards last month: “I think it’s true that over time annual reports have developed a rather unfortunate reputation. We know there are entities that regard them as necessary but onerous and unavoidable, a bit like death and taxes.”

The new advice from Halton’s current department says the best way to bolster the savings that come from digital by design is to actively work on increasing demand for the cheaper online publications. Strategies broadly include highlighting why digital materials are more convenient for the reader and creating incentives or disincentives that discourage demand for printed products.

It then goes on to the need to go digital first and make use of the medium’s best features in the design process, rather than simply digitising PDFs designed according the standards and conventions for print.

The cost structures for digital and print are also very different, the guide points out, suggesting that in rare cases print may actually be the more sensible option:

“In the case of digital information, there may be costs associated  with hosting the information online. Entities should take these costs into consideration when deciding on the most appropriate communication channel and, if print is used, the quantity of materials to be produced.”

Public servants are also reminded that out-of-date information posted online can create reputational and legal risk.

With Commonwealth entities now required to report annually on how much of their digital information is not mobile device-friendly, and the new guide suggests the World Wide Web Consortium’s Mobile Web Best Practice 1.0 as the gold standard for device-agnostic digital publishing, and a related guide for best practice mobile app development.

Finance recently determined that PDFs do not meet accessibility requirements for mobile devices.

Central communications teams are also on hand to help smaller comms units with advice on the best ways and means to talk to specific audiences. According to the new guide:

“It is important to seek the input of central communications areas at the earliest possible stage to increase the potential to achieve better outcomes.

Where this expertise does not exist within an entity, explore opportunities to consult the portfolio department or other entities both within and outside the portfolio for advice, especially if they have carried out similar activities or share similar target audiences.”

Read more at The Mandarin: Halton’s annual report overhaul: ‘next year will be different’

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.