Performance Reports. Indicator reports. Sector planning reports. Strategic plans. Donor information reports. Analysis. More analysis. Synthesis reports. Budget reports. Interim reports. Blah blah blah. This, my friend, is the best-in-class state-of-affairs in public policy and advocacy reporting, external communication and innovation medium, whether it may be from a government department, a consulting firm reporting in public affairs, a local or international advocacy group, or your average researcher. Each document, comprising of no less than 40 and sometimes more than 1000 pages of bleeding Times New Roman* text, is meant to serve as yet another step towards the advancement of public knowledge of public issues. But to me, it serves as yet another calamity from the perspective of good communication and information design skills. Just like is the case of Powerpoint, never before has the abuse of Microsoft Word and InDesign been greater. Sometimes I feel like the people writing and publishing these documents should be paid by Adobe for preserving the PDF standard, which they may use for paying the fines charged for wasting people’s vital time.
I would like to go to the extent and take the liberty to partly blame these poor communication practices for our inability to meet the development goals of our century. These have stifled innovation, created artificial barriers to entry and significantly slowed us down. Our failures in communicating theory, quantitative and qualitative data, and agendas for moving ahead as a society to masses of people in a succinct, clear and consistent fashion has left us hanging at the mercy of change makers who read and interpret these reports for a living. It has distanced public good agents from public good advocates, a crime which entire nations, at times, face jail-time for. If there were ever a worldwide census for least used and exploited public good available to one and all for free, these reports would win hands down and UNDP would be up on the stage giving a 17-minute speech while collecting the award. Of course HP and Xerox would be thanked generously for helping so graciously for giving UNDP the tools help create what in future will become heaps of recycled paper.
Enough trash talking. But really, why do policy makers, sometimes some of the most intelligent individuals on the face of the earth today, communicate in such a horrendous manner? While I was a student of technology and design, my graduate school is a public policy school, and that is where I found some answers to this big question. I learned some of these lessons while working on a recommendation report for a poverty-stricken African nation’s IT sector with 9 other people recently – and I have used that below to provide contextual real-life examples. These are in no way exclusive or entirely accurate, and so I welcome critique if you think otherwise.
Firstly, as sad as this is, it turns out that students and industry professionals in public policy do not even realize that people who do not belong to their field and think like them find this communication kind-of-atrocious. It’s almost like they are blinded to this problem. And that is because they have never seen communication in this space done differently. Sure, once in a while, one of the larger organizations in this space comes up with a high-quality video produced with After Effects, but for most part, such documents are the status-quo in written knowledge sharing. It is the equivalent of producing 200-300 pages of technical documentation to software, a concept that was mummified in the early 2000s to give way to better and more crisp communication. When introduced to doing research in this space, they are given the tools and techniques to master scanning through hundreds and hundreds of pages to extract relevant information. The most authentic source of information becomes these published reports, and from becoming a primary source, becomes the expectation as a deliverable. Techniques to visualize information or even ‘crisp written communication’ never manage to gain any priority in the curriculum, so why would learners wish to do something otherwise?
While working on the report to be produced over a period of 4 months, I offered to step aside from my core role of analysis of ICT in the education sector, to ensure that our excellent work would eventually be presentable and “usable” to our stakeholders – equivalent of creating a UI when doing software development in teams, to provide a usable “window” into the technology, which was something I had done in the past. As expected, I was shot down seconds after I made this suggestion, because “that was unimportant and what really needed to be completed was a report”. NO! What really needed to be completed was sensible recommendations with a reasonable arguments and justification – but the IT guy dare argue
Secondly, design is an afterthought for policy makers. If you are reading this article and saying “what nonsense! of course we design our reports and papers. there is a graphics designer who makes everything look pretty and adds nice pictures and charts”, this applies to you. Slapping a coating of design on a poorly architectured product is not going to make the product any better – it is just going to look more visually appealing and probably a little more navigable. Design is a critical element to the process engineering of thinking about and creating a deliverable that is meaningful and useful. It cannot be an afterthought. Designing such a deliverable is designing the impact, designing the emotion, designing the interaction and designing the reaction to the deliverable. Designing such a deliverable is designing the need and designing the use, and determining the right medium and right experience with the deliverable. Designing the deliverable is designing the behavior change and designing the strategy and designing the expectation and trigger for new decision making. And the sooner we realize this, the better the communicators we are going to become.
Here’s what has gone wrong: when we look at reports from organizations like UNICEF, our trendsetters in this case, and compare them to ones written by your average developing country internal report, we find a huge difference in the aesthetics of the two reports. While the UNICEF reports are animated with finely hand-picked color palettes represented in charts and information hierarchy, along with lush Photoshop-filtered pictures and great document design, with all the massive amounts of text untouched from pre-beautifying, we think of these as the goals we strive to achieve. So in a way, I am suggesting that our standards of excellence are flawed – we are prettifying our reports to help people put up with the hundreds of pages of torture we are presenting to them. And yes, I am also saying that applying make-up to make a person more attractive doesn’t change anything of value about the person that is discovered. Beauty is skin deep, or in the reports case, we consider design to be color-and-pictures-coat deep. And that’s wrong.
While working on the report for which we had created more than 200 documents collectively as a team over the 16-week course, a member suggested a use of a significant proportion our tight budget allocation for something that baffled me: ‘report design’ (to prepare it for publishing). Apart from bothering me because this wasn’t done internally for “free” given that I was skilled in the same, the fact that this was going to be our last step barely aligned with my argument above. Before I could put together my thoughts in a minute for presenting a case for why I should do it, the team unanimously thumbs-up’ed it and moved to the next topics. That was it – 1 min 20 seconds spent on “design”. A couple of people spoke out, but the conversation ended then and there, because design is not important, now is it?
This wasn’t the first occasion such a thing happened. While working as an unpaid intern at one UN’s ICTD arms a couple of summers ago, I heard the buzz about a designer being contracted for big money to “prettify” our reports, just before publishing. It was clear – the leadership believed that a prettier report was going to be the difference between a report that was going to be noticed vs. one that wasn’t read.
Thirdly, such reporting has become a metric of achievement and accomplishment. The longer your resulting document is, the more the data you have accumulated and analysed, the more the reports you have put out there, the more successful you are. This is not to say that the quality of these reports are irrelevant to policy makers – it merely implies that the practice of reporting using extensive documents has become a measure for achievement. The combined act of doing your thing and putting it out there has become the penultimate goal of written public policy and advocacy discourse. Unlike contemporary research, the goal is not to make the best arguments – but to make the most arguments and to iterate on those arguments every once in a couple of years. This is not just an issue with external communication – because this has become an industry practice, even most internal communication ends up being choked with such outdated knowledge sharing practices. Sure there are a handful of large organizations along with few small & innovative consultancies that emphasize on quality rather than quantity and like to express public policy issues with visuals and models rather than abusive pages and pages of text, but these organizations are in the minority by far. The problem is acute and worth talking about because there is no change in traditional thinking on how to communicate this knowledge better, and thus we need evolution in the mainstream majority.
Whenever I was tasked with producing a deliverable for my areas of expertise, I was always told to write at least so and so number of pages. My primary targets were never driven by how well I articulated my synthesis of literature review or my use of ordinary language and visuals to explain the problem, it was always about how much breadth I covered and how many pages I could create on them. Several pages of mere copy-pastes from existing papers were met with Colgate-smiles while a single page of concrete arguments and ultra-simplistic representations of the systems were the cause for frowns before they were even understood.
So now your probably saying, “okay, mr. smarty pants, tell us what the right way to communicate such complex information is?” You know what: I don’t know. And that is because I should not know – every problem is different and the purpose is unique to the situation. And I cannot speak on your behalf or know these problems enough – because if I did, I would be so entrenched in the way things are done now that I too would be blinded by the inefficiency and inadequacy of the status quo. What I can do, as a reasonable consultant, is tell you to explore design thinking and the world of communication better – to learn lessons to embody in your processes. Creating the kinds of reports that are currently being created is easy – what makes this actually challenging is ensuring people get it easily, and often making things simple and understandable requires the most amounts of effort. Even if spending 2 additional hours on these issues can help you improve the efficiency of your paper being understood in ~10 minutes lesser time, you have saved humanity from frustration and misinterpretation of your work even if more than 12 people are ever going to use your work as primary source. At the end of the day, remember, you are human and you are dealing with other humans, so why make everyone’s life hard?
*There was a time I had to deliberately install Times New Roman on my Ubuntu, only for being able to read these reports properly on Adobe Reader