Why Publish Paper Reports?

Every other year, my agency produces a Biennial Performance Report that shows the progress of IT initiatives across state agencies. Traditionally, we have published paper documents with a PDF version for download.

This year, we flipped the model on its ear by turning this report into a website.

Biennial Performance Report website

By virtue of being online, there are a number of inherent benefits.

1) Searchable
Perhaps the easiest advantage is the ability to search. Not everyone reads from cover to cover and is often looking for something specific.

The report itself is also searchable. Use SEO best practices and promote with social media and this report might benefit another state looking for examples like cloud-based solutions for building customized applications.

2) Linkable
The ability to embed links is another low hanging fruit. A large part of the report is to highlight what other agencies have done, and many times that agency already has a website/page about it.

You can also link the raw data that fed the analysis of the report. There were volumes of agency data that would have tripled the length had we included them in an appendix. Instead, we built pages for this data, adding a level of transparency that wasn’t there in the past.

3) Readable
Writing for the web is very different from writing for paper. Online text must be short and to the point, which is not always easy.

For example, here is the introductory sentence from a report by a highly respected government publication:

“The interactive and collaborative nature of Web 2.0 tools of which social media is just one category clearly affords governments at all levels a significant opportunity to engage with citizens and the direct and indirect users of their services across a wide array of programs.”

You might lose some readers with this style. Instead, what if you said:

“Web 2.0 allows government to engage with citizens in a variety of ways.”

I don’t think I’ve lost anything besides 32 words. And that’s just the first sentence of a 37 page document.

However, being online poses risks as well.

It better be intiutive
Since websites are blank slates, your information architecture better be clearly and intuitively organized. If users can’t figure out how to navigate your report, you’ve done a disservice to your audience and you’ll end up with a negative user experience and a request for a paper
copy (if they still care).

Catering to a general audience
For a paper report, it’s expected that you cater to a specific audience. However, if you want your online report to reach as many viewers as possible, you’ll have to find a way to appeal to the casual reader as well as the researcher digesting every word.

What we’ve done isn’t just a change in media output; it’s a cultural shift in how information is presented and consumed. Some may be turned off by the assortment of options, opting for a tangible document with the linear left-right-top-down approach.

But for others, it’s a step in a direction that makes perfect sense. We as consumers are replacing many analog practices with better, cheaper, and faster alternatives fueled by internet technology. Government should recognize this shift and adapt where it makes sense.

Please take a look through the Biennial Performance Report and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear your suggestions on how we can improve the site.

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Sonny Hashmi

Excellent work and great insights. We realized similar benefits and resulted in migrating all financial reporting inside DC to a real time BI portal. This led to several benefits in addition to those listed and the obvious benefit of cutting paper. Data became consistent so everyone. Was looking at the same numbers at the same time. And it allowed us to expand the scope of financial reporting services we provided to include the public facing Interactive cfoinfo dashboard (cfoinfo.dc.gov) and its associated iPhone app.

David Kuehn

We also publish many documents electronically only using html and PDF. This pushes the cost of printing to the readers more than eleminate printing. We also focus more on natively eletronic documents that allow for different formatting and integration of other media.

Christina Morrison

This is a great example of the advantages of open government – saving paper, opening up information to a wider audience, making content easier to find. Also – hopefully you are getting some feedback from other states and governments not just on how to improve the site but how to improve the processes you detail in the report!

Jon Lee

David – Thanks for the comment. For us, this wasn’t just about electronic vs paper. We wanted to change the culture of how information is presented. In the past, reports were more like academic white papers. By turning this into a website, it’s become more interactive and dynamic.

Christina – Yes, we would love feedback on improve the process as well. Even though the end product was more “2.0”, the process of data gathering, processing, analyzing, authoring, revising, and communicating stayed relatively intact. We took small steps this time, hoping to build on this for next year. Do you have any comments on improving processes? Thanks.