A new style manual for a new public service

The Australian Public Service (APS) delivers government services and policies. It must embrace opportunities to deliver better, faster and more efficient services for all Australians.

The DTA Style Manual team holding a printed copy of the Style Manual
Caption: DTA Style Manual Alpha team. L-R: Chris Rodriguez, Freddie Brooks, Jane Dorrian, Susan Baird, Matt McCarthy, Anneke Myers

Clear and consistent content is central to this aim. Everyone in the APS creates content, whether it’s for an online service, email, tweet, paper form, detailed report, social media, blog or legislation. Sarah Richards of Content Design London said it best – “content is the interface”.

We’re developing a new Style Manual with a digital-first approach that will help all public servants to create content that meets the readability and accessibility needs of the digital age.

A brief history

1966 Style Manual committee. Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia. NAA: A1200, L58102

The 1966 Style Manual committee. Image courtesy 'National Archives of Australia. NAA: A1200, L58102'

The Style manual for authors, editors and printers (Style Manual) has been around since 1966. Things don’t generally last that long without being useful or beloved – or possibly both.

A parliamentary committee commissioned the first edition to improve consistency and quality of documents presented to parliament. It cost $4.00 with the foreword written by the then Prime Minister, Harold Holt.

Further editions were published in 1972, 1978, 1988, 1994 and 2002. Changes over the years have reflected ongoing developments in printing and typesetting, office technology, reprography (copying), microfilming, micropublishing, non-sexist language, punctuation, grammar, desktop publishing, user needs, online publishing, and more.

A publication for its time

While a stroll down memory lane is fun, what does it mean for the new Style Manual? It means, like the versions before it, that the digital Style Manual must be a publication for its time.

To understand what users need in the digital age, we asked them:

  • What do users need from the Style Manual?
  • What user needs are not being met?
  • What do users expect from the next edition?

We found previous editions met user needs through authority and being comprehensive. We learned Google doesn’t have all the answers, or perhaps it has too many. Users want clear rules and guidance. They told us that rules plus examples equal answers. Some users also need evidence, and the reasons and contexts behind rules, to have confidence in the answer.

The size, density and labelling in the sixth edition makes it hard to find things, especially when in a hurry. And as the Style Manual ages, so do the gaps in content – particularly in relation to digital.

Users told us that the Style Manual is hard to find in the office and copies are closely guarded. They are not easily accessible to all who need it. We found approval processes can be difficult because personal preferences of approvers can result in rework, inconsistency, and frustration. 

We learned that in today’s public service, everybody writes. Whether you are building digital services, developing social policy, tracking the weather, or assessing applications for payments or services, everybody writes.

Improvements we are making

For the new Style Manual to meet today’s user needs, it must:

  • be digitally biased, both in content and format to address access issues and content gaps. This includes guidance on the emerging practice of content design
  • provide streamlined, easy-to-find, and definitive rules and guidance
  • focus on user needs and be written by experts to maintain credibility and scope
  • have integrity, with rules and guidance based on evidence
  • have the authority of endorsement by government

To make sure we continue to meet user needs, we are publishing the Style Manual online. This means everyone can access it and we can respond quickly to emerging issues.

Publishing the Style Manual online has introduced new challenges. We know that how people read on the web is different to how they read printed content. We aim to practice what we preach about readability and clear language. We’ve found it takes a lot of skill to use clear language to talk about language.

We’re addressing the seemingly contradictory need for fast answers and evidence and rationale. We’ve created a page structure that front-loads rules and examples, and provides evidence and rationale lower down.

Being an online version enables us to have a search function to find things quickly, with a detailed menu structure if you prefer to browse. There are on-page links so you can share specific content and we’ve included a lot of examples to illustrate rules and guidance.

Content integrity and authority

We’ve engaged a content partner, Ethos CRS, who established a highly qualified team of writers and editors. Within this arrangement, we also work with the Australian National University’s National Dictionary Centre. The dictionary centre provides a body of evidence for our usage advice. We have an advisory board, with highly esteemed expert members to rule on contentious style issues, such as dashes.

To maintain authority, we have appointed a multi-agency Governance Board. Their role includes endorsing the product before it goes Live.

The danger is when you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no-one. To make sure this doesn’t happen we are testing with users as we go.

This in-flight research has enabled us to improve content and information architecture. Users also gave us feedback about tone and voice.

We recently published our third private Style Manual Beta release. We plan to go Live later this year. We will continue to improve as we go. We are confident our focus on the user means the new Style Manual will continue the good work of earlier editions. And do so in a way that is fit for the digital age.

Stay in touch

Stay in touch as we head towards Live. If you have a gov.au email address and want to visit our private Beta site, subscribe to our Style Manual newsletter.