A graduate student emailed asking if Briefing Notes and Memos can be used interchangeably. The answer is “yes and no”; different organizations have different practices. Here are the Differences between Briefing Notes and Memoranda, in printable pdf format.
Often all we see are news clips of opposition and government members sparring in daily Question Period. The best way to really understand how Question Period works (and why you are writing Question Period Notes for your Minister) is to watch videocasts of an entire session of daily Question Period.
The Legislative Assembly of the Province of British Columbia provides archived videocasts of proceedings. For example, here’s a link to the out the April 29, 2010 Oral Question Period proceedings in the BC Legislature. It leads with Opposition Leader Carole James’ question on the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) which is answered by the Honourable Colin Hansen, Minister of Finance and Deputy Premier.
Note that Ms. James reads from briefing notes for her original and two supplemental questions. Although the Minister of Finance does not read from notes, you may observe him looking down (perhaps at notes) on the second supplemental. You might also observe, as the camera pulls back into longer views, the briefing materials on the Minister’s desk. Later on, in reponse to the Member from Stikine’s question, the Minister of Finance reads from notes some quotes from the forest sector. The content most likely will have been provided by departmental officials and staff in the Minister’s office.
When I first read Dr. Douglas Hartle’s case study, I thought it would be a great script for the BBC television series Yes Minister. Then I became a senior official in Ottawa, drafting MCs and attending interdepartmental consultation meetings, often reminiscent of Hartle’s story.
As public servants are sworn by the Oath of Secrecy not to divulge how particular Cabinet decisions were made, Hartle wrote what he described as an attempt to convey, in fictional form, the essence of the MC consultation and decision making process as seen by a former senior bureaucrat. It’s a popular case study in public administration and Canadian politics courses.
The case study begins with the inner thoughts of the senior official who drafted the MC, on his way to a Privy Council meeting. “I looked upon the meeting as anticlimactic and the hours of work spent in getting the words on paper as largely wasted. But pride in affecting a political decision is, as every bureaucrat knows, at least as satisfying as the pride in the acknowledged authorship of an official document…..The draft might be ridiculous. But does not the pride of the professional lie in doing a ridiculous act well?”
It’s an informative as well as entertaining read. The Institute of Public Administration (IPAC) has published it as “Case Study Ethics 1.29“. (cost is $5). There’s a limited preview at “Google Books“, if you are curious.
“If officials can’t even get my correspondence right, how can I trust them to manage the Immigration program?”
When I heard a Canadian Minister of Immigration say that to the Deputy Minister, it piqued my curiosity. What if officials approached the task of writing as a measure of their competence or credibility; how different might their attitudes and products be?
I share that exchange when I’m delivering public sector training programs because most officials don’t have first hand experience of how Ministers think. Unless you’ve worked at the top of organizations, around Ministers’ and Deputy Ministers’ offices or regularly attended meetings of the federal Treasury Board committe of Ministers. But those are other stories, for other posts or trainings.
For now, remember that practice and training can improve public sector writing. What else can it do? Ask yourself, could how I write be a metaphor for how I script my life? Do I pay attention, am I clear and direct? Do I get the point? Can I effectively communicate the point of it all, to myself and others?