Writing Reports for City Council

July 3, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

City staff provide objective, professional advice to Council, and implement Council’s decisions (in accordance with policies and bylaws, and statutory powers, such as the Community Charter).

If, for any reason, trust and relationships are eroded, the City’s political decision making process will bog down, Council deliberations will often get side tracked, and decisions deferred (or sent back to staff for more information that may not even be needed to make the decision).

The best way for staff to support effective decision making, by Council, is to write Reports that foster Council’s trust and confidence in staff. When writing any Report for Decision, ask yourself: “Have I presented all the reasonable options/choices for Council’s consideration? Are the options presented objectively? For each option, have I explained the advantages/benefits and the disadvantages/costs. Is the recommendation substantiated? Would I be confident using this Report to make a decision if I were a Council member?

Providing anything less may lead Council members to suspect they are being manipulated or managed by staff; or being pushed into staff’s desired outcome, without being given all the objective, reasoned advice an elected official is entitled to when asked to make a decision.

Top 10 Tips for Editing Documents

March 21, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

  1. Practice Stop/Start – Once you’ve written your document, stop, and start something else. Later come back to the document and read it with “fresh eyes.”
  2. Read what you’ve written slowly and aloud.
  3. When reading, use a blank sheet of paper to cover the content not yet proofed, so you’re just focusing on the line you’re reading.
  4. Edit for Structure and Content first – Do the “big picture” editing before the proofreading for grammar, spelling, punctuation etc.
  5. Edit for Style – appropriate tone, use of gender, sentence structures, passive voice, prepositions, conjunctions, etc.
  6. Shorten your sentences by cutting long ones in two. Keep your paragraphs short.
  7. Check clarity, anything that might be unclear to the reader. Check accuracy.
  8. Reduce the use of adverbs and adjectives; use stronger words. Examples: Use “great” rather than “really good.” Use “she sprinted” rather than “she ran quickly.”
  9. Avoid “empty words” – “in order to, start to, that, there is/are, due to the fact that,” etc.
  10. Avoid unnecessary gerunds (ing). Say “she ran toward” rather than “she was running toward.”

Bill Wilson: “It’s karma or kismet.”

February 19, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Seeing his daughter Jody appointed federal justice minister three decades after he told Prime Minster Pierre Trudeau she wanted to be Prime Minister is “karma or kismet”, according to First Nation’s leader Bill Wilson. He says he remembers the exchange like it was yesterday, even though it occurred in 1983 in Ottawa during at constitutional conference on native issues. Jody was reportedly 12-years-old and watched the exchange on TV at their home in Campbell River, B.C. Jody Wilson-Raybould was appointed Justice Minister by Trudeau’s son Justin in November 2015.

Plain Language Training Guides

February 9, 2016 by · 2 Comments 

Human Resource Development Canada once funded development of a Plain Language Online Training site which no longer exists. The instructional content of the site was adapted from a 1991 Government of Canada writing guide called Plain Language: Clear and Simple and an accompanying Trainer’s Guide.

Although both documents are difficult to find these days, according to Canadian editor Iva Cheung, “despite their age, they are among the best plain writing guides I have come across”. She has made pdf copies available (in both official languages) for free download on Google Drive. If you are interested, click here to go to her site. They are also available for free download on Clear Communication Wiki.

Roles & Conduct of Federal Ministers

December 17, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

In November 2015, the Prime Minister of Canada released OPEN AND ACCOUNTABLE GOVERNMENT outlining the roles and responsibilities of Ministers and the standard of conduct expected of Ministers. It also provides guidance to ministerial exempt staff and useful information for public servants.  The entire document, is available on the PM’s website.

Public servants risk becoming irrelevant?

January 24, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Former federal Cabinet Minister David Emerson says, “public servants are losing their monopoly on policy advice to government and will soon be considered irrelevant unless they change how they gather, analyze and shape their recommendations,” according to the May 16, 2014 Ottawa Citizen.

Interesting observations from a man who was also a BC Deputy Minister of Finance and Deputy Minister to the Premier.

Emerson, who chaired a 2014 prime minister’s advisory committee on the public service, reportedly said “technology and big data are turning the world of policy-making on its ear.” 

“Government is a little information economy with lots of barriers to the free flow and use of information, so a big challenge for the public service will be how to adapt when the world is now able to access all kinds of quantitative and qualitative information is a split second on hand-held devices.”

“Ministers want information and advice faster and if the public service drags its feet because of outdated methods, tools and attitudes, the government will look elsewhere. And, he reportedly said, there is no end of places to look, ranging from think-tanks, academics and lobbyists, to advocacy groups and even political staffers who have easy access to information on hand-held devices.”



French Writing Resources

December 11, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

We were asked in a Writing Excellent Briefing Notes webinar for resources in French. Here are some suggestions:

PWGSC maintains the Language Portal of Canada, which provides access to Canadian resources for communicating effectively in both official languages. There is a section called decouvrir-discover that contains links to a variety of free resources (federal, provincial, academic etc). Click and go to the French Site, or the English Site.

The free Public Service Commission of Canada Style Guide is online: Click here for the French Version or the English Version.

The Canadian School of Public Service offers a variety of writing courses in both official languages and varying price ranges. Click on the link for one in French called Rédaction de notes d’information ciblées, or the English version Writing Targeted Briefing Notes.

Contact Us

December 7, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

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Your Writing = Your Competence

October 23, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

“If officials can’t even get my correspondence and briefing notes 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?

And then, because it’s always political in the public sector, even on a PublicSectorWriting.com website, I qualify – it was not the current Minister, not even the current government.

I share that exchange when I’m delivering public sector training programs as an example of how senior and elected officials may think about your writing (whether it is reasonable or not).

DON’T Fabricate Your Reports

November 18, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Don’t ever fabricate anything in your briefing notes or reports. Before you consider writing something that is not true, or is deliberately misleading, think about what the consequences could look like as a newspaper headline. For example, imagine a photo of yourself in the Ottawa Citizen under the headline “Bureaucrat says he had to invent account of business summit because report was due before event.” According to the Citizen, an October 2012 report to Ottawa City Council, written by the economic development director and formally submitted by the city manager, contains detailed praise for an event that hadn’t yet happened.

DO Push Back: It’s Always Political

March 25, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Coaching advice to a public sector Manager: Push back. Don’t let anyone push you into political situations without giving you all the information you need.

The Situation: Unbeknownst to the Manager, one of her senior executives met with a stakeholder who then sent a document (about commitments made at the meeting) to the senior executive’s office as “heads up” that it was going to be tabled at the next public meeting in three days. The senior executive’s assistant sent an email to the stakeholder (copying the Manager) telling the stakeholder to meet with the Manager to resolve some of the inaccuracies in the document. The stakeholder called the Manger to set up the meeting.

Coaching Advice: The Manager asked PublicSectorWriting.com for advice and was coached to “push back” as it’s ALWAYS POLITICAL. The Manager did not brief the senior executive, was not debriefed following the meeting, has never seen the document and does not know what happened at the meeting. The stakeholder wants to advance her agenda, the “heads up” is a mere foil, the executive assistant does not want to be the one who ends up being responsible for the “inaccuracies” in the document. The senior executive can later report to his superior that he told one of his Managers to “fix it” and she failed to do so.

How to Push Back: The Manager could tell the senior executive’s assistant (by email so the Manager has an audit trail) that she does not know what happened at the meeting, what the inaccuracies are, what the executive wants to say instead, or what the organization’s messages are about this issue. Tell the executive’s assistant she will not meet with the stakeholder without knowing this, as the tabling is in three days. The executive’s office must tell the stakeholder not to table the document.

Briefing Notes versus Memoranda

September 8, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

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.

Orwell’s Rules on Writing

June 27, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

George Orwell’s Rules, from “Politics and the English Language“, (1946), are timeless.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Follow these rules and you may well be reversing the decline of the English language . As Orwell explained:

“It is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”

Why Would You Want A Resource Centre?

April 23, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

Why would you want us to create an online password-protected Resource Centre for your organization? The answer is in the question: “What do I do? I’ve just been tasked with writing a QP card (or options briefing note, or Memorandum to the Minister)”.

An online Resource Centre will:

  • Provide podcast and written training materials to improve the quality of the products your staff produce;
  • Provide templates and examples using content specific to your organization (you tell us which key issues you want covered in the examples, we research and write the examples);
  • Present detailed information on How It Works – Question Period; or the Memoranda to Cabinet process; or Cabinet briefing; or whatever it is you want included in your Resource Centre;
  • Offer examples and advice on how to find your department’s key messages or the Minister’s preferred responses;
  • All in a password-protected on line-site that can only be accessed by us and the people you give your password to. And it can be updated over time to meet your organization’s needs.

There are even more reasons, like, it’s very cost effective and provides value for money – think of it an as always available training session. All material is clearly identified as examples for training purposes. Your users can download & copy the material or leave it on our password protected site and and access it whenever needed. And we have more expertise in this area than most do – more than 20 years experience serving Ministers and Deputy Ministers.

Purdue's Online Writing Resources

February 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Although the focus is not public sector writing specifically, Purdue University has a great Online Writing Lab (OWL) offering free writing resources and instructional material. You’ll find everything from job search writing to all you need to know about use of semi colons. 

The OWL Site Map provides a bird’s eye view of resources for writing and teaching writing; research; grammar and mechanics; style guides; english as a second language (ESL); and job search and professional writing. 

All the material is copyrighted by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University but individuals and teachers can use it.

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