NLPES Question of the Month
What do your office's written reports look like, and what are you trying to accomplish with your format(s)?
Kerry Fitzgerald, Louisiana
We changed our report format about a year ago and have gotten good results. We went to a question and answer format and also made our reports more direct and concise (some past reports were huge and tended to rambled). We now have a "summary page" at the beginning of each finding which has the question at the top of the page and then a paragraph that directly answers the question. Then we have our recommendations and the agency's response to each recommendation. All of this info is summarized right there on the first page or so. Legislators can read only that page if they wish and get the full gist of the finding and the agency's response to it. Then we have the details of the finding on subsequent pages.
We are also now issue brochures for each report called "Report Highlights" which contain a lot of picutres, clip art, graphs, etc., along with the main points of the report. These are done in color and are on 11X17 paper that is folder in the middle to look like a booklet. We have gotten rave reviews on these from legislative staff. They are very handy and are enticing to read. They also get straight to the main points without all the gush.
Our website contains our reports and the Report Highlights if you would care to take a look at them.
Sylvia Hensley, California Bureau of State Audits
Our report format consists of an Executive Summary; Introduction, which includes the scope and methodology; chapter(s), which include a chapter summary, if the report includes more than one chapter, and recommendations; and auditee's response. We believe this format provides an appropriate balance of concise communication and sufficient detail and documentation. For example, though highly summarized, the executive summary is a stand alone document. We also try to make sure that our titles, headings, and subheadings clearly summarize the content of the report, chapter, or section, respectively, so the reader quickly knows what follows. Pullouts are another means we employ to draw the reader's attention to important points. Finally, we use graphics extensively to convey detail in a concise and easily understood manner. If you want to take a look at our reports, they are available on our web site at www.bsa.ca.gov.
Leslie Marks, Utah
Our office went through a fairly extensive report review and revision process in late 1998. We did this in the interests of making our reports more reader-friendly and accessible.
We started by surveying legislators to ask what they liked or disliked about our reports. We asked how the reports could better help them. Using the responses, we implemented a number of revisions. The following changes have been incorporated into our full-length blue cover reports; changes to our shorter letter reports are under consideration by our report style committee.
Some practices that we kept include using Arial bold headings in different sizes for chapter, center, and side headings. Paragraph headings are bolded but in the text font.
- Since many legislators told us they read only the digest or summary, we have tried to incorporate recommendations or a summary of them into this document. In the past, we did not include any recommendations in the digest.
- We brought the left margin of the report over to 2.5 inches, providing more white space on each page, and have developed short statements or "callouts" that appear in that wide margin. These serve to emphasize salient points to the reader. They are written with the idea that a reader looking only at the callouts could still get the main points of the report.
- There is a vertical line running down each page at the 2.5 inch margin to define the white space even more clearly.
- We use more bulleted lists, both to provide more white space (easier on the eye) and to emphasize important info succinctly.
- While we have always used charts or figures, we redesigned the look of them and also now use interpretive headings instead of merely factual ones. This gives us another opportunity to highlight important info to the reader. We are also trying to use more figures.
- The main text of our reports is now Galliard BT, a rounder and slightly larger font than either Times font. The text is a little easier to read. Since it is larger, writers are encouraged to be less verbose to keep reports (especially individual paragraphs) from getting too lengthy!
Our headings are mostly informative and finding oriented; we try to stay away from short headings such as "Agency Finances" which tell little about the actual finding.
As far as length goes, some legislators felt our reports were too long and wordy, some wanted more info (!), and some felt they were just right (sound like the three bears?). We try to write in a "pithy" way that gets all needed info and data in without wearying the reader. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don't!
A couple major resources we used are The Non-Designer's Design Book and the Franklin Covey Style Guide, which we use as our primary style guide. Thanks to Florida for pointing us to the first book.
That gives the main points of our efforts. Similar changes may occur in the letter reports; this hasn't yet been decided.
Recent reports can be accessed at http://www.le.state.ut.us/audit/ad_alldl.htm
Jason Wahl, North Dakota
For performance audits, the North Dakota Office of the State Auditor uses a very similar report format as the U.S. General Accounting Office. Our report consists of the following:
- Title page
- Transmittal letter
- Table of contents
- Executive summary
- Introductory chapter
- Chapters for recommendations (usually 2 to 4)
- Chapter on noteworthy accomplishments and issues requiring further
- Any appendices
We phrase our audit goals as a yes/no question and typically have a chapter dedicated to each audit goal. The report format allows us to easily identify areas needing improvement through the use of section and subsection titles. We believe this allows the user to identify a particular area they may be interested in. The report format also provides for a nice transition from recommendation to recommendation.
Over the past few years we have reduced the amount of information included in the audit report to make them easier to read and not as long. We have also tried to incorporate as many graphs or charts as we can to provide useful information to users of the report. Recent reports are available at:
Washington Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee
Primary audiences for our reports are the affected state agencies, legislative staff and legislators-the 16 who serve on our Committee as well as the remaining 131. Each audience has different requirements. Legislators need a version where they can get to the bottom line in less than two minutes; legislative staff may be able to spend 10 minutes; and agency staff will want a report that thoroughly, if not excessively, documents each of our critical findings and outlines the reasoning behind our recommendations. In our presentations, we aim to summarize the main thrust of all of our reports on a single page of large-font bullet statements. All of our reports have an executive summary of no more than two pages, highlighting the major findings and all the report's recommendations. This is probably the most widely read document from each study. Finally, the main report aims to be 15 to 20 pages (too often exceeded) of straightforward prose, targeted to an audience of ordinary folks. Most of our reports also have technical appendices, but if they get to be very large, we will put them in a separate document and make it available upon request.
Jim McMahon, Hawaii
WHAT OUR REPORTS LOOK LIKE
The written reports of The Auditor, State of Hawaii, are bound in an easily recognizable blue and white cover and are as concise as we can make them. The main body of the reports often runs 30 or 40 pages. This may seem like a lot, especially when appendixes and agency responses are added to the package. But, like the United States General Accounting Office in its audit reports, we enhance readability by means of narrative pages that contain a column of white space on the left (about one-third of the page) with only headings and subheadings interrupting the space, and a manageable column of text on the right (about two-thirds of the page) . The start of each major section within a chapter is framed by a strong lateral line. At the top of each page subsequent to the opening page of a chapter, we repeat the full chapter title, again framed by a strong lateral line. We limit charts, graphs, and tables to the minimum necessary to convey the message, and we avoid over-complex graphics. Charts, graphs, and tables except the Appendixes are simply called exhibits.
Most of our reports contain a background chapter--called Chapter 1, Introduction--that describes the agency or program being audited, the audit objectives, methodology, and so on. Chapter 2 contains the findings, conclusions, and recommendations and usually has a "thematic" title such as "The Lack of a Coherent Strategy Has Impaired the Child Support Enforcement Agency's Ability to Solve Its Problems."
WHAT WE ARE TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH WITH OUR FORMAT
In our reports, we are trying to present a persuasive message with a central theme that busy legislators, agency managers, their staff, the media, and the public can quickly grasp. We are also trying to present enough detail--including hard data, logical analysis, and examples—to establish our credibility and show that we have a full understanding of the subject at hand. We do not cut our reports to the bone. For example, several pages listing all of an agency's contracts over the past few years may seem excruciatingly detailed to some, but those very pages, if cleanly and crisply presented, transmit a powerful message as to how, where, when, and on whom the agency is spending its moneys.
We also balance the need for concise communication with the need for detail by inserting inside the report's front cover an unbound, single-sheet, two sided overview of our findings and recommendations and of the agency's response.
Ned Parrish, Idaho
The Idaho Office of Performance Evaluations produces several types of written reports. Our standard Performance Evaluation Reports range in length from about 20 to 75 pages, depending on the issues addressed. These reports generally include an executive summary, a 1 to 3 page summary of conclusions and recommendations, an introductory chapter (including methods and background, chapters of findings and recommendations, an agency response, and any needed appendices. We use conclusion-oriented section headings, sidebars, bulleted and bolded finding statements and recommendations, and a modified POWER writing style. We also frequently use tables and figures to provide information without interrupting text. We use appendices to print potentially needed detail with the report and use workpapers to log supporting documentation not included in the text. We attempt to keep reports conclusions-oriented, while still adding sufficient context to make conclusions understandable.
For these reports, we also develop a one page (front and back) "skinny" that is a strongly graphical, highly-reduced summary of the full report. They provide a quick overview of evaluation results for busy legislative readers.
Evaluative Reviews are shorter reports - generally 8 to 12 pages – that address narrowly focused issues or respond to time-sensitive requests. These reports include a brief discussion of the project scope and methods, an abbreviated summary of key findings and conclusions, sections (rather than chapters) addressing specific issues requested for review, and an agency response. As with performance evaluation reports, conclusion-oriented headings and bulleted and bolded findings and recommendations are used to direct the reader to key information and conclusions. These reports also may include tables and figures to quickly summarize detailed information.
Federal Mandate Reviews are brief reports - 4 to 5 pages in length – that address legislative questions concerning federal requirements cited in pending legislation. These reports provide information within a strict outline: a 1-paragraph executive summary, a summary of the issue at hand, an overview of federal requirements, a discussion of applicable funding issues, and discussion of legislative options. These reviews are conducted on a very short timeframe - typically 2 weeks or less.
Rick Riggs, Kansas
In Kansas, we issue audit reports (usually 20-80 pages or so), for those who want or need the detail, and executive summaries (2-6 pages) for those who don't. We also send a flyer with a one-paragraph abstract of each newly issued audit to each legislator.
In the full audit report, we make extensive use of sidebars and profile boxes that let us include examples, extra detail, additional background, survey comments, and other interesting information that isn't absolutely necessary to the story we're trying to tell. (For example, we never base a recommendation on information that appears only in a profile box.) We relegate extensive tables, lengthy methodology explanations, etc., to appendices.
Each section of the report starts out with an audit question (e.g., "What Factors May Help Explain Why a Smaller Percentage of Kansas School Districts' Expenditures Went for Instruction Costs Than Other States' Districts?"). The first paragraph under each such question is the "answer paragraph" that summarizes our findings by giving a brief, direct answer to the question. The main points or findings are set off in bold type outside the left margin of the text; the reader should be able to understand our findings just by reading these sideheads.
The standalone executive summaries show the same audit questions and sideheads (in slightly different layout), along with one or two subordinate points under each sidehead, the corresponding page numbers, and our conclusions and recommendations, along with a summary of the auditee's response.
Typically, we send the full report to the chair, vice-chair, and ranking minority member of the relevant committees, and the executive summary to all other committee members. This gives everybody an idea about what we found, but doesn't give busy legislators 50 pages when 5 would do.
Recently, in response to new requirements for full accessibility, we've started creating text-only versions of our executive summaries for our website. You can view a typical report, executive summary, and text-only executive summary at our website, www.kslegislature.org/postaudit
Ken Levine, Texas Sunset Advisory Commission
What do our reports look like? Our reports look like pieces of paper, with cover stock, bound by GBC binding (couldn't resist...). But seriously now, we design our product to be simple to use by the members of the Legislature, and our Sunset Commission members. We avoid features the average member may consider "too fancy". While we try to design the cover and interior graphics to be pleasing, informational and professional, we avoid complicated graphics and color printing.
Our format provides the reader who has limited time with enough information at the front of the report to get a sense of the problems and solutions provided within. We also include a one-page summary of our approach to the review, including an overview of the big picture problems found and policies dealt with in the report. While the reader who skims may skip that page, it sets a good tone for the report for those who are willing to read a few paragraphs.
All general background type information about the agency or program reviewed is in the back of the report. Most readers want to get to the heart of the matter, so that is what we provide at the front. Generally, the biggest, most controversial issues are first. Each issue/recommendation provides a summary of the problems and solutions at its front. The detailed support follows. We generally know a lot more about the issue than appears in the report and limit what we finally write about to the key problems and support information.
Again, the report is like a progression. For those who just want the summary "sound bite" level of information, that is at the front. The detail necessary to support the recommendations follows for those readers who need more info.
While we write for legislators, this style works pretty good for the public and interested parties also. The agencies often don't particularly like it because it highlights the problems and doesn't give the high level of detailed information or "proof" that they would like to see. Oh well. They are not our primary, or even our secondary customer.
You may view our reports at our website: http://www.sunset.state.tx.us/
John Norris, Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts
The only performance type reports we do are for our Sunset Committee, which mainly serves as a legislative oversight body not limited to determining the continuance of an agency or program. Our reports serve as information for the deliberations of the committee. The committee's output is in the form of bills. Our reports have the following sections:
- Profile of the agency in table form presenting its purpose, structure, and pertinent characteristics of its enabling statutes;
- Conditions that we determine are important enough to be presented to the committee (called significant items);
- Status of prior audit findings;
- Organization chart;
- Performance characteristics;
- Financial information;
- Responses of questionnaires sent to controlling agency authority (board members, commissioners, etc);
- Responses of questionnaires sent to agency clientele;
- Responses of questionnaires sent to complainants;
- Agency enabling statutes (unless too large)
This report seeks to give the committee a picture of how and how well the agency is operating and to bring up significant matters with which the agency is currently dealing. We use tables, bulleted information, etc to get rid of verbiage when possible. The significant items are presented in the pyramid style with a lead sentence or two in bold followed by elaboration. The questionnaire responses are presented verbatim. We intend the reports to be not only information for the Sunset Committee, but also to be used as historical reference material for an agency's operations. The reports are styled entirely for legislative consumption and are not rigorously detailed and referenced.
Our reports can be found in the audit reports - special reports section at: http://www.examiners.state.al.us/
Joel Alter, Minnesota
All legislators receive a four-page summary of each evaluation report that includes: (1) a one-page bulleted summary of the report’s major findings and key recommendations, and (2) a two- to three-page narrative discussing the report’s main points, and (3) a synopsis of the agency’s response to the report. We shortened these summaries several years ago, based on comments we heard in a focus group with legislative users of our reports.
Our full evaluation reports, ranging from 30 to more than 100 pages, are distributed to members of our audit commission, committees that are discussing our reports, agency staff, and others. Some of the important features of our reports include:
Also, we typically issue one “best practices” report each year, focusing on services provided by local governments. The summaries of these reports list general practices that we think local governments should consider implementing and short descriptions of local governments that are actually using the practices. The full report contains further details, including names and phone numbers of persons to contact about these exemplary practices.
- Blue covers: Over the years, our blue covers have gained familiarity with legislators.
- Photos: Each report has a cover photo that captures some aspect of the evaluated topic. We also try to include photos throughout our reports, either to illustrate key points or to break up long sections of text.
- Wide margins and highlighting key points: The pages of our reports have a wide left margin, which makes the reports look less dense. Nearly every page has a sidebar that states a key point in that page’s text. (Our hope is that readers who ONLY read the sidebars can still get a good synopsis of the report’s content.)
- Chapter summaries: Each chapter opens with a boldface summary—typically, three to five sentences that highlight the main points of the chapter. Following the summary, we state the research questions that the chapter addresses.
- Colored charts (where necessary and affordable): We have used colored charts in several recent reports, especially in cases where colors could highlight a particular aspect of the chart. Still, most of our charts are in black and white.
- Report length: Our full reports are longer than those of many states, but we continue to think it is important for the full reports to present detailed documentation for our findings. This facilitates our discussions with agencies about the basis for our conclusions, and it helps to make us accountable for the conclusions we draw. (At the same time, we try to have other, more concise ways of presenting our findings to users who don’t want to look at the full report.). In addition, we think that the introductory chapters of our reports—which largely describe programs and how they work—are a useful reference that lead many users to keep our reports close at hand for years after they have been issued.
- Highlighted recommendations: The first page of our report summary lists “key recommendations,” and there is a complete list of each report’s recommendations near the back of each report. Within the body of the report, we usually place recommendations close to the findings from which they arise—to help readers draw a logical link from our discussion of a problem to our recommended solution.
- Others: In response to comments we heard at the focus group of legislative users of our reports, we include a list of “further readings” at the end of each report. We try to keep appendices (if necessary at all) to a minimum, sometimes by putting supplemental materials at the website for the report (such as summaries of survey results).
Our reports are available at: http://www.auditor.leg.state.mn.us/