How to Write Government Documents

Lesson 8 - The Text

Let’s start with three basic Civil Service rules

Doing a first draft is fairly easy. From that stage it’s a long process of seeking comments and contributions. Contributors fall into various categories.

(a) The stars

Before the moans, some recognition of the stars who tirelessly read successive drafts and provide crisp, relevant drafting suggestions. Then they patiently repeat them when the author has inadvertently deleted them. Again and again. These are the unsung heroes of Government documents.

(b) The sentence extenders

“You could take my point on board by adding the following (97 words) to sentence x”. Or “If you are mentioning x and y you really need to mention z too”.

If Harry Potter were written in this style it would go something like this:

Harry, along with other key stakeholders such as English Partnerships, the RDAs and Gandalf, and in the light of a wide-ranging consultation exercise, thought that, subject to appropriate consideration of the options, he would head, in an integrated and holistic way, respecting the four key principles of public service reform, for the cottage built on greenfield land situated close to major transport infrastructure interchanges by the end of April 2004.

(c) The highlighters

These people normally come from other government departments and wear fluorescent yellow coats. They put their Ministers up to writing letters saying that the document should “highlight” x, y and z, promising that officials can follow up with textual suggestions. These officials normally fall into category (b) above.

(d) The More-ons

These people phone up asking that the document say “more-on” this and “more-on” that. The purpose of saying more is rarely clear (except as an application of the general rule that more words equals better). So “more-on” crime could read: “The government is determined to stamp out crime, which is a very bad thing (“more, more!) and we’re joining up with lots of people to stamp out crime (more, more!) and we’re working, yes, across government! (more, more!) oh and with lots of stakeholders too (more, more!) including the police (can’t you mention any more?) OK, and Darth Vader, Superman and the Social Exclusion Unit…

e) Clear and strong people

“We think the document should make a clear and strong statement on x/y/z”.

(f) The positively incomprehensible

“We welcome the cross-references in Chapter 1 to existing documents including A Better Quality of Life (the UK’s sustainable development strategy). However, we still need to ensure that action is clearly targeted so as to support the UK’s national and regional sustainable development targets. These targets, and the definition of sustainable communities, should cascade into the regional daughter documents.”

(g) The hyped-up ideas-mongers

These are the people who, in wondering how to improve the quality of construction, come up with a string of original ideas, e.g. a better building task force leading to a better building plan, led by a better building unit reporting to Departmental better building champions who will ensure that all policies are better building-proofed, and that there should be a better building kite-mark.