The local government masterclasses on the NZIER website are excellent resources for council officers and for consultants who work in the local government sector.

Here are some of the top report writing tips I picked up from these masterclasses.

An overview of poor, adequate and good reports

A good place to start is Paper #3 which provides an overview of what weak, adequate and strong papers look like, in relation to the following categories: problem definition, strategic focus, use of consultation material, risk analysis, options analysis, communication and the executive summary.

Report specifications

Paper #19 stresses the importance of writing down the specifications for a policy advice paper (such as what the advice is going to be used for) and ensuring there is approval of those specifications, so that there is a mandate for commissioning the paper.

The background section

Paper #27 notes that the background is often a good place to start the writing process because it’s often relatively straightforward and gets the writing juices flowing.

This section is likely to include:

  • Why this paper has been developed
  • What information is necessary to understand the issue. What has happened or might happen?
  • Scope of the paper (what’s included, what isn’t)
  • Previous actions and decisions, and connections to wider (especially strategic) policy.

The trick is to provide the exact amount of information to allow a quality decision without making it too long.

Presenting evidence

Paper #8 points out that we don’t always have a perfect evidence base for decision-making. A way of addressing this problem is to clearly communicate the quality and reliability of the evidence used.

This paper also notes that council reports and policy papers are often informed by public consultation and a submissions process.

“While some of the information contained in submissions is undoubtedly opinion, some of it is based on evidence provided or cited by submitters. The same principles about being careful about the strength of evidence also apply here. However, it is not the only evidence. It should be supplemented by evidence from other sources, and balanced accordingly.”

NZIER Local Government Masterclass – Paper #8

Options assessments

Paper #18 has some excellent advice on the development of options.

  • Always start with the status quo. This sets a base from which you can compare other options
  • Organising your options on a continuum is often helpful. This helps expose the cost of the various options, against the benefits or impacts of each of them, often identifying a point of diminishing returns. But don’t only use a continuum – think outside the square as well.
  • Look at how others have addressed a similar problem.
  • Evidence on best practice can help identify options.
  • Look at regulatory and non-regulatory options.

Common mistakes NZIER sees are:

  • The goldilocks choice – in simple terms presenting one option that is too small, an option that is too big, and one that is “just right.” This pushes people towards the middle. But it might not be the best option.
  • Two dead rabbits – neither of the alternative options presented are palatable – leaving only one still viable.

Different ways to present an options analysis are shown on pages 5–7 of Paper #18, and include ticks and crosses, and a traffic lights system.

Risk management

Paper #5 advises that “in its simplest form, risk in the development of advice is concerned with the likelihood that things don’t turn out as expected”.

Three key concepts to consider are:

  • Probability or likelihood – what is the probability that something different from expected occurs?
  • Scale or impact – if something different happens, what are the implications?
  • Mitigation strategies – what can be done to manage the risk? Do the mitigation strategies manage the probability of something occurring or the impact of it occurring? And what is the residual risk once the management strategies have been applied?

You don’t need to include all the details in your paper. Instead, do the analysis as a standalone piece of work and then reflect the results in the paper. This means only talking about the significant risks, and how to avoid or mitigate them, in the report.

Risks to consider include: financial, legal and environmental matters, as well as impacts on different sectors of the community. Implementation risks may relate to the complexity of a project, or timing issues.

Recommendations

Finally, Paper #14 reminds us not to introduce new material in the recommendations, and to make sure that all the recommendations are supported by the content in the paper.

Need more help with your reports?

You can download my free guide to report writing, which shows you how to tell a memorable story in your report, and outlines the three steps to follow to get your report done and dusted.

Alternatively, click the second button to get some hands-on help with your report.