April 2019 event: editing for government with Peter Davies

by Susan Keogh, Events sub-committee

May newsletter Susan Keogh Pres Peter Davies speaker

 President: Susan Keogh with Speaker: Kevin Davies
Photo: Joely Taylor

Eating dinner: Lorna Hendry, Guy Nolch, Samantha Hunt and Megan Shaw
Photo: Joely Taylor

Twenty-nine members gathered in a new venue, the Terminus Hotel in Queens Parade, Fitzroy North, for our April dinner meeting. After we had enjoyed our meals (I had the haloumi burger, which was as delicious as it sounds), our guest speaker, Peter Davies, revealed the inner workings of state government publishing in four lessons. While Peter is currently a strategic communications adviser at the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, he was formerly the Assistant Manager, Reports and Communications, at the Victorian Auditor General’s office (VAGO), where he oversaw the publication of 35 to 40 reports each year (a publishing program larger than many medium-sized publishers).

Peter’s first lesson was that while there are few editors named as such working in the Victorian public service, there is a lot of editorial work. There are 300,000 Victorian public sector employees (yes, that’s just the state public sector) working across 800 agencies, all of which need to produce reports, guides, brochures, websites and other digital and online content. Most of this publication work is managed and commissioned by people from a communications background who often do not have a deep understanding of the publishing process. (Peter himself had started at the Victorian Law Foundation, an unusual government agency in that it had its own dedicated publishing function that often helped out other organisations with their publications.) Two common blind spots are the difference between editing and proofreading, and scheduling adequate time for editorial work. Peter gave the example that government publication managers may not understand that editorial comments and queries need to be reviewed and answered, with the result that a schedule may require an edited document to be sent to the printer three hours after the editor has returned it! The sub-lesson he stressed was that educating your new government client on what is involved in working with an editor is a critical part of the process. In addition to noting that editors working for government should check that adequate time is allowed for dealing with editorial queries, he noted that style sheets may also be an ‘unfamiliar concept’.

Peter’s second lesson is that government procurement processes are a labyrinth but it can be worked through. The starting point is the Victorian Government Purchasing Board, which is in charge of finding contracting suppliers for eight major departments and a number of other major government bodies. Contractors need to be selected from an approved list, so the first step is to become listed (editors can list themselves on the Marketing Services Register). Suppliers need to provide referees and cost information. In the last few years, VAGO had, in consultation with Editors Victoria, developed a panel (or a pool) of freelance editors. VAGO was ‘overwhelmed’ with the response at the time, and used accreditation as a filter to help select the final panel. Peter noted that ‘We weren’t always a dream client’, citing in particular a penchant for unreliable delivery dates and unrealistic timeframes.

The third lesson Peter wanted us to take to heart was that plain English ‘is gaining traction’ in the state public sector. Subject experts writing for the myriad reports, brochures and other publication formats are often surprised when told that no one can understand what they are trying to say. Peter provided some interesting statistical information here. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has conducted surveys of literacy, and ranked the population on a scale of 1 to 5, where 3 is the minimum level needed for coping with standard documents and forms, and understanding newspapers and magazines. A total of 83% of our population scores 3 or below (46% at level 1 or 2; 37% at level 3). Peter’s observation was that most government publications were not accessible to this 83% of their intended readership. He pointed out that editors can play a role in highlighting this issue, and helping to fix it.

This provided a neat segue for Peter’s final lesson: that all organisations that deal with the public need editors to help them reach their intended audience. He concluded with examples of how some government bodies have worked directly with focus groups of readers to improve publications.

In the question-and-answer session, the initial few questions were about finding government work, and how much there was. Peter’s particularly useful advice was that editors keen to work for the public sector should start by investigating the Victorian parliamentary website, which has a list of reports submitted to the Parliament. Those interested in exploring this list can research which departments are producing the most reports or can find which departments are producing reports in areas where you have a specialist skill or knowledge. Peter emphasised that content matter knowledge is often what is looked for when picking a supplier. He also mentioned that the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) and Ombudsman’s office are substantial publishers.

A question was also asked about insurance. Peter noted that this was a default requirement in government contracts but that he had been happy to negotiate the deletion of this requirement in individual contracts with editors.

And with that, the formal part of the evening ended.