Case studies help us to apply theoretical ideas to real life.

They are a great way to:

  • celebrate successful projects, and the people who contributed to them
  • share repeatable solutions with other professionals for the benefit of New Zealand as a whole
  • retain valuable institutional knowledge at the end of big projects, before staff retire or move on to other roles.

These reasons to write case studies also apply to the consultancies which work with councils, with the extra advantage of building credibility and attracting clients.

Case studies can take many forms, and are often included in award entries, presentations at conferences, on websites, and in formal publications. They could also be shared on a council’s intranet page.

This article provides a summary of what to include in a case study, followed by suggestions on how to enhance the quality of a case study during the review process.

Acknowledgements: I have adapted Steve Slaunwhite’s case studies writing sequence for the local government context. My suggestions for enhancing your case study (once you have a first draft) were inspired by a LinkedIn post by writer and content specialist Lizzie Davidson.


Elements to include in a case study

1. The challenge

Content to include: What problem was your council dealing with? Dig out the original problem definition in the report or business case, and rewrite this in a conversational style.

Note: Don’t write a case study like an official report, or as if you are in a job interview and trying to impress the selection panel.

It will be much more appealing if you write it as a conversation with an interested colleague in a lunch break … “Here’s what we were dealing with, and this is where we struck a few problems. The best way around them was to … But if we were starting from scratch, I’d probably …”

2. The people

Content to include: Introduce the people involved in the project, and their role in it. This may include councillors, council staff, iwi, consultants, volunteers, and/or an advisory group.

Note: Another option is to reverse this order, beginning with the people and then introducing the challenge.

3. The journey

Content to include: What steps did you take to solve the problem? What other options were investigated – and why weren’t they selected?

Discussing potentially viable options which were considered but not chosen will help other councils which are weighing up a similar range of choices.

You will be able to access this information from the council report which led to the decision to proceed with a project – but you will need to concisely summarise and rephrase this content to avoid getting bogged down.

Note: Providing a hyperlink to a publicly available council report will save you from the temptation to bung in a full options analysis!

4. The discovery

Content to include: How did you develop the preferred option? Did you adapt a process that had worked well in other situations, or did you need to identify new technology or methods?

5. The solution

Content to include: Talk about the preferred option – what does it involve?

6. The implementation

Content to include: How was your solution implemented? Did everything go as planned, or did you have to make some changes along the way? How long did it take?

Be honest about any problems that arose and how these were resolved – this is likely to be one of the most interesting parts of the case study, and will help your readers to avoid making the same mistakes.

Also highlight anything that went spectacularly well.

You can add value in this section by including a clear, step-by-step process, or some key principles to follow. Here’s an example of a six point list from the Just Transitions Guide.

7. The results

Content to include: Explain how the preferred option solved the problem. Be as specific as you can here. If possible, use hard data.

The following examples show how valuable it is to include numbers. They are from page 33 of ‘Sponge Cities – can they help us survive more intense rainfall?’ by Kali Mercier (for WSP and the Helen Clark Foundation).

Note: If you don’t have numbers, consider including quotes from people which show how they are benefiting from the solution.

Now you can sum up your case study with any final reflections on what worked well, and what you would do differently if you were at the beginning of the project.

How to enhance your draft case study

Here are some matters to consider when reviewing your draft case study.

A. Think about your readers

Council staff and consultants are likely to be keen to learn about the technology you trialed, workarounds for problems that occurred, and details about realistic timeframes and budgets.

Question: Is there anything else you can add, to make your case study more useful to your readers?

B. Talk about all contributors

Don’t tell a one-sided story – discuss how different people contributed to the outcomes, or were affected by them.

Question: Have you forgotten to mention anyone who played a significant role in the project?

C. Make the information as useful as possible

Consider how to present your information in a way that enables other people to achieve the same results.

Question: Can you sum up your key insights at the end of the case study in a useable format, such as a list of criteria or as a step-by-step process?

D. Identify gaps

Ask someone who has not been involved in the project to review an early draft.

Question (for your reader): What else do you want to know? What sections were vague or boring?

E. Add visual interest

Question: Can you add any photos, diagrams or other images?

Would you like help with a case study?

Please get in touch if you can see the value of case studies, but don’t have time to create them.

I can help you with:

  • a plan for your case studies, which reflects your primary reason for preparing them and your target audience
  • interviews with council staff and consultants, and review of written information sources
  • preparation of case studies.

Phone: 021 215 4698