Summarising and reporting on submissions.
This simple system of using topic codes and a related report writing structure will help you to make sense of the wealth of diverse information and opinions expressed by submitters, and to present this in a way that makes it as easy as possible for a council committee to make decisions.
This method is ideal for consultation on a proposal or a plan following the processes outlined in the Local Government Act (as opposed to the Resource Management Act). You can use a table in Word or Excel for this process, depending on your preference.
1. Skim read a generous sample of the submissions
Wait until the end of the consultation period (when all submissions are in) before starting the summarising process. Then you can quickly scan a representative range of feedback to identify the main topics covered in submissions.
2. Come up with a list of topic headings
Your draft list of topic headings will be used to categorise and to code your submissions. These headings will also become the subheadings in your report. (You can amend and add to this list while completing the summary of submissions.)
3. Review the sections of the consultation document or proposed plan which have attracted the majority of the submissions
At this stage it’s worth taking the time to read the parts of the consultation document or proposed plan which have attracted a high level of interest from submitters, to familiarise yourself with what the council is proposing. (This is particularly important if you didn’t write that document!) It is much more efficient to read targeted sections once you know what is relevant to the submitters, rather than reading the whole document ahead of time and hoping you remember the relevant details.
During this review, make any notes related to the topic headings that will be useful to you when summarising the submissions, such as the range of options being consulted on (so that you know what submitters are referring to when they say they support Option D).
If the content is very detailed, you can just note the relevant page numbers (or tag the pages with post-it notes) for referring back to while you are summarising the submissions and drafting the report.
4. Set up a summary of submissions table in Word
Set up a simple table for your submission summary, as shown below. I prefer to work in Word, but some people will prefer to do this in Excel. Just work with whatever suits you best.
This table allows you to use as many rows as you need for each submitter, depending on the range of topics they submit on. (In the table above, you can see that Person 2 makes comments on two different topics.)
If you have submission numbers which you may wish to refer to in your report, you can add another column, as shown below.
5. Summarise the submissions
The key skill of summarising submissions is to spot what matters, and to paraphrase that information in a way that is most useful to the councillors. You can do this by clearly relating the comments to the relevant aspect of the proposal or plan – focusing on what the submitters support or oppose, and what they want to see changed.
When summarising submissions I aim to find a midway point between the level of detail in the original submissions and the very concise information to be provided in the report.
A submission summary needs to be comprehensive enough to fairly reflect submitter comments, and to be able to respond to the submissions later (if this is what your council’s approach at the end of a consultation process). Also keep in mind that councillors will read some or all sections of the submission summary, so it needs to provide more information than is available in the report, while being short enough to refer to during a deliberations meeting.
Note: In many cases it is simpler to type your summary from scratch, as this encourages you to be concise, and to focus on accurately matching comments to topic categories. However, copying over blocks of content from an original, electronic copy of a submission is a good option when a large amount of the original text needs to be included in the summary.
6. Add new topic categories
As you work through the process of summarising submissions, you can add extra topic categories to cover anything you missed during your initial skim read of submissions. Aim to have categories that are broad enough to cover more than one or two submissions. You will probably need to have an ‘other’ category to mop up the rats and mice that don’t fit anywhere else.
7. Decide on the topic order for your report
Decide how you are going to order the topic categories in your report. Here are two options:
- lead with the ones which have proven most controversial and are most likely to lead to changes to the proposal or draft plan, followed by the less consequential topics
- present the feedback in the same order as shown in the consultation document or the draft plan.
If in doubt, ask your manager which approach they would prefer you to follow, as this will save you from having to change the order of your report later.
8. Create a table of topic categories
This table should reflect the order in which you have decided to discuss the issues in your report. Once you have listed all of your topic headings in a table, add a topic code. The best option is A, B, C, D (as this gives you 26 unique characters).
The important thing to do, to speed up your report writing process, is to add a symbol before that number or letter, so that you can use the ‘Find’ function in the Menu bar above your document to search on all instances of that code. (I have used an asterisk in the example below.)
Note: The ‘Find’ function is on the far right hand side of the Home menu.
When you click on ‘Find’, a Navigation box will pop up, where you can add in your topic code. In the following image you can see there are six occurrences (results) of the code *A.
9. Update your submission summary
Add a ‘topic code’ on the right hand side of your submission summary, and add in the code for each submission comment, as shown below.
Now you will be able to use the ‘Find’ function to:
- instantly see how many comments there are on any one topic
- locate each comment on a particular topic quickly and easily.
While it’s ideal to only have one topic code per row, you can include more if it is impossible to separate these out (e.g. *B and *C).
10. Add the numbers of comments into your topic table
Now you can add the table of topic categories into your draft report. This will give the councillors an overview of the level of interest in particular topics.
You can remove the topic codes before the report goes on the agenda, but leave them in for now, to allow for late submissions (which are almost inevitable!) and to give you an easy reference point during the report writing process.
11. Add the topic subheadings and paragraphs into your report
Start to populate your draft report, following the order in your topic table. A good structure under each of the topic subheadings (when consulting on a draft plan) is:
- Paragraph 1 – A brief overview of this aspect of the proposal or draft plan.
- Paragraph 2 – A brief overview of how many submitters commented on this topic, their feedback in terms of numbers in support and opposition, and any significant changes requested.
- Paragraph 3 – Officers’ recommendation or comments.
Note: This structure works well for the most significant topics, but you might only need paragraphs 2 and 3 for minor matters. For example, you won’t have anything to say in paragraph 1 for your ‘other’ category.
12. Add in your submission overview (paragraph 2) for each of your topic subheadings
Use the ‘Find’ function to review all of the feedback on a particular topic (using the topic code), and use this to create your overview of the feedback.
Here’s what this can look like:
The majority of the submissions (20) supported … (Include some detail for any particularly notable submissions, or any commonly expressed views.) However, one third (10) of the submitters were opposed to this proposal, and their main concerns were …
Note: When starting a sentence with a number, the number needs to be written as a word (e.g. Twenty submitters), rather than a digit (20 submitters). If this looks cumbersome, it is better to rewrite the sentence to avoid starting the sentence with a number.
13. Add in a summary of the proposal or draft plan (paragraph 1) for each of your topic subheadings
Aim to make this as concise as possible (approximately two sentences). Writing this summary after you have written the overview of submissions (in paragraph 2) will allow you to hone in on the elements of the current proposal (or draft plan) which most closely relate to the feedback from submitters.
14. Add in your officer recommendations or comments (paragraph 3)
This is your opportunity to suggest changes to the current proposal in response to submissions, or to explain why you don’t consider that changes are necessary.
These paragraphs are the most important, and will receive the most scrutiny from senior managers and councillors – so spend the most time on them. Once you have paragraphs 1 and 2 in place, and have written your draft recommendations, you are in a good position to share your draft report with other staff.
The content in your draft report enables other staff to consider the implications of your draft advice, without the need to wade through all of the submissions. By saving them time in this way, you are much more likely to get any help you need to finalise your recommendations.
15. Remove topic codes (paragraph 3)
Remove the topic codes from the final version of the report and the submissions summary (which is likely to be an appendix to your report). (However, make sure you retain a copy of the report and the summary with the codes included, for your future use.)
- Approval of your report by your council’s management team
- Hearing process (add in any additional information from the hearing which is relevant to the decision-making process)
- Deliberations meeting
16. Prepare responses to submitters
Once the councillors have made their decisions, you can use your copy of the submission summary with the topic codes included to prepare customised responses to submitters (if this is your council’s preferred process).
Add another column to the right hand side of your submission summary, called ‘Council response’ as shown below.
Use the topic codes to easily copy and paste the decisions on the different topics (customising these further, where required).