In this article, William Makower discusses operational guidance as a cornerstone of public sector philosophy: Read on to find out why these services are vital
Adhering to the procedures and operational guidelines in place is a cornerstone of public sector philosophy: And rightly so; the services provided are often vital and are funded through the taxpayer.
Further to that, the stakes are incredibly high if this guidance isn’t followed; people’s lives can be at risk. And those incidents can range from individual safeguarding cases through to major incidents with hundreds of people involved.
Guidance as it stands
But for members of emergency services and other vital organisations, they may not have encountered in training all of the different kinds of events they might in the field. So, it’s important that when they do, they have access to the most up-to-date and relevant information. What’s just as important is that this guidance in the first instance is clear, easily accessible to them and informed by experts. It’s one thing knowing the general principles of tackling a forest fire or rescuing capsized sailors, but it’s a different thing altogether knowing precisely how to tackle these to the letter of the law and in the safest way possible.
Unfortunately, this information traditionally tends to exist in hefty, sporadically-updated PDF documents, buried away in legacy IT systems, gathering digital dust and, in some cases, not being updated and modernised accordingly.
The information these documents contain is essential for public bodies to follow. But when comprised of contradictions, unsearchable content and generally innaccesible formats, they are of no use to anyone. The situation is further aggravated by both the lack of standardisation and minimal reviewing of the content. Adding another layer of confusion to the matter is the density of language and jargon which can often be used. One thing is for certain; such critical guidance needs to be brought into the 21st century.
To the future
Those tasked with the daunting update of this guidance, particularly within the public sector, now have the tools, and easy access to those tools, that their predecessors did not have. As an example, subject matter experts can now review and update guidance as new learnings come in from the field. These updates can then be pushed out to operatives and volunteers with alerts via text and email. Equally, access to and input from subject matter experts is easier to find, reach and engage with.
Technology is also improving to support this transformation, in particular the ability to access any important operational guidance in real-time. But with this tech evolution also comes the responsibility for guidance to be more relevant and accessible for all, and content is a clear starting point for any update of guidance. To start with this, there are several key areas to keep in mind:
1. Identify your audience
Trying to explain the specifics of your job, especially one with a large amount of technical terminology, can be a very difficult task. Hard enough to explain to employed staff, even harder when relying on the goodwill of volunteer groups. It’s easy to forget sometimes how alien some of the language involved within professional industries can be to the average person. It’s important to remember that guidance needs to be easily understandable by all those that want to read it – not just people with years of experience in their field.
2. Think about audience requirements
It is also important to bear in mind exactly what the guidance is going to be used for. Yes, it will be used by professionals in emergency situations to help inform them. But it will also be accessed by inspectorates as they check compliance, or the press as they follow up on a recent event and how it was responded to. Or by members of the public that want to check that the advice they were given during an event was correct. Again, this is going to impact the technical level of the content, but also the tone too.
3. Prioritising accessibility
One of the most important aspects of these documents is to be easily accessible by those who need it, wherever and whenever that may be. Guidance evolved from written documents through to PDFs and beyond, but unfortunately, many organsations are still stuck at the PDF stage. This format is outdated and impractical from an operational guidance perspective; it doesn’t allow people to dynamically search for the information while on the go or in an emergency, nor does it allow inspectorates to evaluate specific areas.
4. Clarity beyond words
The document structure must be consistent, allowing versions of guidance to be compared to one another. For example, repeating or conflicting areas must be identified and removed. On a smaller scale, but still importantly, even choices regarding typography and headings need to be made to aid that all-important clarity. All of these will have a cumulative effect on the document.
5. Collaborating with the right people
As mentioned, collaborating with subject matter experts is hugely important to ensure that the content is technically accurate. But equally important is the need for conversations with content experts to ensure that the text isn’t impenetrable to a wider audience. Professional writers and editors need to work alongside these subject matter experts to ensure that the writing has the right balance of accuracy and readability.
6. Evidencing the guidance process
Also important during this consultation phase is making sure that the process is tracked – public bodies need to be able to look back in time and evidence how they reached decisions and what steps were taken and when. Responsibilities around data are becoming ever more stringent and, in the wake of major incidents such as Grenfell where guidance is scrutinised, a clear log of all actions needs to be kept.
Operational guidance is a tricky subject, but modern technology, as being developed for the UK fire and rescue service, must be harnessed so as to improve process and impact lives.
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