People and processesChange ManagementExpertise and evidence: untangling the web of operational guidance

Expertise and evidence: untangling the web of operational guidance

William Makower, CEO of Panlogic discusses why operational guidance shouldn’t be overlooked in the digital transformation race - and outlines how it can be digitised

Mention the words ‘operational guidance’ to those working in the public sector and you’ll most probably be met with a look of panic. For many working in the area, guidance is a sprawling web of documents, PDFs and dusty printouts which are found buried at the back of cupboards or hard drives.

This is often because of the nature of the guidance rather than the guidance itself. Most will agree that the information and advice found within these documents is invaluable. The issues arise from the fact that the documents are often only accessible in PDF or paper copy, without any standardisation, riddled with contradictions and with no way to check procedure against centralised guidance.

Add to this the fact that sections aren’t searchable, the guidance can’t be instantly accessed on the go and their language can be dense and unapologetic, you fast begin to see why the topic is approached with trepidation.

What needs to be considered?

But with technology constantly improving and a willingness from various public-sector bodies to learn, evolve and become more agile, there are now projects underway to address the issue of operational guidance. Despite often being complex, multi-year undertakings, there is clearly one area of guidance to begin work on: the content itself. For this there are several points to cover:

  • Identify your audience. If you have ever worked within a technical field, have you tried to explain your job to someone that has no idea about the area? It’s a difficult feat, and one that many people in charge of guidance forget that they even need to do. Guidance is publicly accessible for a reason; it’s not just for subject matter experts to refer to, but for anyone that wants to look up the rules and guidance around a particular area. The cladding on high-rise buildings is one such area that is being closely examined at the moment by many people outside the industry. The content of the guidance needs to be understandable for whoever wishes to read it.
  • Think about the audience needs. What are your audience going to be using the guidance for? Of course, it will be used by professionals on a regular basis. But will it also be used by inspectorates for the purpose of checking compliance? What about members of the press looking into a recent event and how it was responded to? Or affected members of the public that want to know that the instructions they were given were correct? Again, this will affect not just the content but the tone and language being used too.
  • Make accessibility front-of-mind. The next aspect that needs to be considered is how the guidance is going to be accessed. Guidance evolved from written documents, to digital word processing documents through to PDF – but despite further advances many organisations are still stuck in a ‘PDF mentality’. This doesn’t allow people to dynamically search for the information they need while on the go and in emergency situations; neither does it allow inspectorates to look at compliance against different areas of guidance. The National Operational Guidance’s ‘Strategic Gap Analysis’ is a vital tool for both Fire Services and their inspectorates and a good example of accessibility.
  • Clarity is more than language. As a final point, think about other factors that will also influence accessibility. The structure must be consistent, allowing versions to be compared against one another. Repeating or conflicting areas must be identified and removed. Even aspects such as typography and headings need to be made clear to read. All of these will have a cumulative effect on the document.

Who owns the content decisions?

A technical discussion on an area you love with someone else who knows it well is one of life’s great pleasures. However, this can sometimes impact on guidance; if subject matter experts liaise with subject matter experts, then the resulting text can be impenetrable for anyone less well-versed. This is where professional content writers and editors can make a huge difference, acting as a filter between experts and end users of guidance in order to ensure that the content remains accessible.

The key aspect of this to bear in mind is that experts and professional writers (if being used) need to work in conjunction throughout the process. One group editing the other’s content simply will not work and could lead to factual errors within the text which could have severe repercussions. It must also be ensured that the final set of eyes on any guidance before sign-off is a subject expert; this will ensure that any last-minute changes haven’t resulted in one of these factual errors being created. Content available through .GOV is a strong example of good content creation – clear and succinct, the content is then subsidised with further technical documentation for people that need a deeper level of detail.

Evidencing the guidance process

Another part of the process that needs to be maintained is a log of how decisions surrounding guidance have been reached. If, when presented with the final, rewritten and reorganised guidance, the head of a public body asks how that point was reached, you need to have those answers at hand. Which technical experts were consulted? Who signed off particular sections? Were any external parties brought in to peer review the content? All of these, plus time frames and dates, give a clear understanding of the process that was undertaken.

A related methodology that makes this process easier is agile project management. Now a well-established term within the public sector, agile means that the project can be broken down into a number of ‘sprints’. Crucially, this means that reviews happen on a regular basis, ensuring problems aren’t ingrained over a period of months or years. Despite these ongoing planning meetings, a retrospective review of the overall project is still important to ensure learnings are transferred to the next one undertaken. From an evidence perspective, these sprints and reviews also ensure that if a guidance project needs to be legally reviewed, a clear audit trail is available.

Moving from analogue to digital consultation

As the storage and accessibility of guidance moves towards being digital, so to should the consultation process. For instance, government guidance will be published and people will have to write or email in any comments that they may have; this is missing a trick in ensuring that these voices are heard and useful feedback integrated. While not common practice, the future of guidance development needs to have a new way of liaising with external parties and referencing feedback. Make it digital, use the option for feedback to be anonymous and keep clear records of guidance development; this should be the next stage of ensuring the development process is kept clear, has feedback loops and everyone’s voices are heard.

Operational guidance is a tricky subject, but this framework brings the clarity needed to update it for the 21st century. Think about your audience and their needs, consider accessibility and format, have content writers and subject matter experts working in tandem and keep the consultation process open, agile and recorded. That’s how guidance will stop being a hindrance and start providing its true value.

About the author:

This article was written for GovTech Leaders by William Makower, CEO of Panlogic.

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