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Government documents - understanding what users need

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Content design

Last December we asked for your help in selecting the standard formats for documents produced by the government. We published two challenges on the Standards Hub - challenges are problems that open standards might help to solve.

Publishing these on the Standards Hub means that we can be transparent about how we select standards and be open to ideas from the broader standards community, implementers, suppliers and users.

Thanks to you, we have received some great feedback on standard formats for documents.

As well as hearing from you through the Standards Hub, we’ve also been conducting a parallel discovery project involving internal government staff, citizens and businesses. This has helped us to learn more about how people use digital information. So, here’s an update of what we’ve learned from them so far and what will happen next as we work towards reaching a conclusion on the document format challenges.

As part of our parallel discovery project we have:

  • analysed feedback on using government documents that we received through GOV.UK customer support and transformation projects
  • interviewed people in government to understand what they use electronic documents for, how they work, and who they share with
  • carried out a survey of 650 citizens and businesses, to ask them about their experience when using documents produced by the government

What we learnt from people inside government

Our interviews showed us that some of the things we expected to find about users’ behaviour were correct, but also added insight about things we hadn’t considered. So far, we’ve spoken to people in 10 different departments, including staff who work in IT, statistics, finance, legal and human resources teams. We learnt about some very specific user needs relating to the type of information people work with, and have been using this to help develop proposals about which standards we should use.

Government documents - understanding what users need

For example, people working on policies, guidance documents, and publications in general, tend to work with multiple documents at a time; often needing to be able to exchange documents internally and to collate feedback from different sources.

Staff working on government statistics may need to release data to the public and export the data they manipulate within specialised software into more common formats that can be used by any audience.

When it comes to accessing, collating and sharing information, unfortunately these tasks don't always go smoothly. Occasionally people can't open files created by colleagues or by people outside government. Sometimes the content gets corrupted and can't be read properly. Government users are telling us that when they do encounter these problems, they are mostly due to a lack of consistency in the formats used to save or export documents. This means people have to find alternative routes to read these documents or to get the correct formatting; a cause of delays and frustration.

What we learnt from people outside government

The feedback we received from people outside government showed similar results. We received 650 responses to a survey of users who viewed, downloaded or edited government documents available online, including professional users such as business owners, lawyers and accountants.

We asked about problems with viewing, downloading, opening, reading, editing or submitting government documents. In about a third of these cases, respondents said that they had issues sometimes or often.

Where users have problems, they often cite issues with internet connectivity or not being able to read documents properly. For example, sometimes documents won't open, or some of the text is missing or overlapping. Some of these problems are due to format incompatibility and occasionally users have had to call, email or visit government offices in order to obtain the documents they need in a format they can access.

Access to government information is made easier by an ever-growing amount being made available on web pages rather than in downloadable documents. However, some users currently need downloadable information. We need to provide formats that users can work with.

What happens next

Based on this research and the feedback we received through the Standards Hub, Stephen Kelly, who is leading this work, has now published proposals about which document format standards are being considered for use in government:

Sharing or collaborating with government documents - proposal
Viewing government document - proposal

If you want to know more about what happens next, you can read about how we select open standards. In the meantime, if you have a view on the proposals, you can give us your feedback through the Standards Hub until 26 February.

Continue the conversation with @GDSteam on Twitter and sign up for email alerts. Need more than 140 characters? Find out how to contact us.

You may also be interested in:

Setting open standards for government documents

First open standards selected

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  1. Comment by Julian David, CEO, techUK posted on

    Government open standards consultation - a missed opportunity?

    techUK is fully supportive of the government's open standards policy. We very much welcome the current consultation on 'setting open standards for government documents' which ends today.

    However, a number of companies have recently contacted us to raise questions around the process used by the Government Digital Service (GDS) for the consultation. Specifically they feel that they needed more involvement in the process to get a better understanding of the issues. They are also keen to gain more understanding of the rationale and decision making process used for restricting or excluding any open standard.

    We are fully behind the government's aims and techUK would value further engagement with GDS to help our SME members better understand the process and issues involved.

    techUK would also like to help develop guidance for implementing the standard. We stand ready to work with the government and ensure the market is fully engaged in this process and most particularly with SMEs.

  2. Comment by Marnie McCall posted on

    Some of us also need to print. I could live without .pdf or .rtf versions of web-pages if they were printer-friendly (take a look at this page in Print Preview!). I really object to having to copy and paste the text into a word-processor document before I can print. I'm sure I'm not the only one, so perhaps "printer-friendliness" should be one of your publishing standards.

    At one level, the problem is not yours. I live in a corporate environment with a very small cap on storage (one-size fits all, ignoring different roles). If not for this, I could save the webpages themselves (if I assumed they would be permanent).

    • Replies to Marnie McCall>

      Comment by Tony Cornford posted on

      I agree that HTML publishing is great IF there is printability. All too often printed HTML is ugly, scrambled and containing excess 'stuff'. Some sites do this well so it is possible. Iel.


  3. Comment by Benjamin Rusholme posted on

    These proposals look good to me.

  4. Comment by Morwenna Stewart posted on

    Any plan to look at the best structure for government documents (reports, particularly)? Is there any good practice guidance, that you know of?

    • Replies to Morwenna Stewart>

      Comment by Barbara Chicca posted on

      Hi Morwenna,

      In GDS, we tend to publish HTML pages rather than formatted reports but whatever medium you're using I'd say the basic rules apply: use headings, explain technical terms, use short sentences etc.

      Basic web writing skill goes across all formats - it's writing how people read.

      You might find some of the guidance in our Content Style Guide could be relevant

      Perhaps other readers of this blog post can suggest guidance they have come across?