Types of government writing

Each government department and agency has specific terminology, approaches and processes for different types of writing. Check the conventions for your own organisation.

This section covers:

Discussion papers (green and white)

These represent 2 stages of policy development and consultation with stakeholders by the government:

  • Green papers are preliminary consultations with public stakeholders when new policy is being formulated. They are intended to elicit feedback on the policy and gauge its likely effects.
  • White papers are the mature stage of public consultation about a new policy. Based on the feedback from the green paper, plus additional research and development, white papers present more details of the goals and operation of a policy, along with recommendations relevant to its implementation. They may invite further public feedback.

Discussion papers need to be as clear as possible, and lay out the background and reasons for the policy and what it hopes to achieve. They should make any assumptions clear. They should also be written so that it does not sound as though decisions have already been made – they should leave room for feedback and alternative opinions.

The papers should clearly spell out the process and deadlines for feedback.

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Government reports are intended to communicate with readers inside and outside government.

Reports are generally written in a reasonably formal style, but that does not mean they cannot be clear and easy to understand (see Clear and appropriate language for guidance on how to achieve a clear writing style).

Some regular reports will need to follow a particular format, with specified inclusions. For example, annual reports for government departments and agencies must follow the requirements of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013.

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Briefs are written to summarise information. They are sometimes written to provide information about a specific issue to a senior manager or minister. They are often written to get a decision or approval about an issue.

In some departments, a brief is known as a ‘minute’, which should not be confused with meeting minutes. If the brief is for a minister they may also be known as a ministerial briefing, which should not be confused with ministerial correspondence or ministerial statements.

A brief should include:

  • identifying information, including who it is to, who it is from, the date and the subject
  • talking points
  • background – history and context of the topic
  • options (may be required for complex topics) – the available choices, which are then examined in the issues section
  • issues – an analysis of the topic and the reasons for the recommendations
  • recommendations – a clear decision or course of action requiring approval.

Briefs are designed to condense and present an issue for managers or ministers, who are likely to have little time to consider and digest information. Briefs should present information clearly, in logical groupings, and with analysis clearly tied to recommendations. Each point should be made in a separate, short paragraph; the paragraphs are usually numbered.

Any options are often presented for the decision maker to simply circle or tick, to ensure that the result is clear (eg ‘approved/not approved/discuss further’).

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Ministerial correspondence

Ministerial correspondence (sometimes known simply as a ‘ministerial’) is correspondence to a minister from a member of the public, which public servants have to write a response to (on behalf of the minister).

In writing to the public, follow the guidance for clear writing. Remember that the person you are writing to may have different skills in English language reading (see Clear and appropriate language for how to achieve a clear writing style).

Aim to answer the question up front, before providing explanatory information. You may also want to include where the person could go for additional information or services.

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Meeting minutes

The minutes of a meeting are designed to provide an accurate, summarised record of discussions and decisions taken at meetings. The minutes can be shared with other staff or departments, or used as part of a formal record.

When taking minutes, it is a good idea to use the agenda to set up a template, so you can easily add notes into the relevant areas of proceedings. Each item on the agenda becomes a heading in your template. Add a list of attendees at the beginning.

As the meeting proceeds, aim to capture summary notes under each heading as discussions occur. Pay particular attention to any decisions or action items identified. Use dot points to separate ideas or speakers, and aim to capture general ideas and issues rather than a detailed account of every contribution.

It's a good idea to review the minutes soon after they are taken, while the meeting is still fresh in your mind. This will allow you to fill in any gaps and clarify your notes before the minutes are finalised.

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Government websites

Government departments offer public information on their websites and other websites related to their sector.

Many audiences use websites as the main way to find out about and use government services. Government websites must therefore be as usable and understandable as possible for many different people.

Government content and web developers will need to pay attention to:

User research and usability testing are essential to ensure that government content meets user needs and expectations (see Listening to your users).

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Ministerial statements and media releases

Ministerial statements are official submissions by government ministers to the Australian parliament on aspects of their portfolio.

Ministerial media releases are released through the press for public consumption. They may be about particular announcements or events, or statements and responses to community issues and concerns.

These documents are generally written in a formal style, but should still be clear and unambiguous.

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Community communications

Governments will often need to present information to individuals and the community. This may take various forms. You need to decide which form is most useful for your purpose:

  • Letters and emails are appropriate if you want to talk directly to particular individuals or make sure people receive specific information.
  • Phone texts and SMS can be used for particular groups and to reinforce or follow up on other communications.
  • Webpages and social media will reach audiences who are already interested and searching for information on the topic.
  • Brochures, flyers and posters are useful if there are events or spaces that your target audience will attend.

You can use a combination of these forms to identify and reach your audiences.

The voice and tone of the communications will depend on the topic and the format. For example, a debt notification letter will have a more formal tone and presentation than a poster encouraging people to exercise more (see Connecting with your audiences).

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