Would you consider writing your reports backwards?

In the scope of the contemporary planetary crisis this post probably qualifies as less urgent and a little bit rant-y, but today Id like to talk about reports, as in: Digital publications, usually pdf documents, that many large #globaldev organizations publish as a staple product for communication, engagement and reminding people that they still exist...

I read a lot of stuff on the Internet. I also skim-read a lot. I open a lot of pdf files, too.
Please re-consider your organizational practice to have a report starting between page 10 to 15.
Tell me as early as possible why I should engage with your report, why I should invest precious time to read it, perhaps even share it in my weekly #globaldev link review…

I have mentioned it more than once in my curated #globaldev links that most organizational landing pages/repositories/libraries particularly of international organizations have room for improvement. I don’t really want to shame a particular organization, but many look similar to ECLA’s digital repository:

So the first problem is that these landing pages often contain hardly any useful information (what IS a UN symbol?!?). They are databases to store reports which could be useful for structured knowledge management or to create a general sense of accountability, but does nothing to attract readers in the 21st century. ‘I wonder what’s new in the UNCTAD report library’ is a sentence I haven’t heard…often, to say the least.

Now I’m forced to open the full report (the separate three page ‘executive summary’ pdf is usually not very helpful because it focuses on too much ‘noise’ rather than a concise overview over key aspects of the report) and then the arm-wrenching scrolling begins…

This page is left intentionally blank
Title page, copyright page, ‘this page is left intentionally blank’, secondary title page, table of content, list of abbreviations, list of tables and figures, foreword by the director of the organization, foreword by the deputy director responsible for this particular area of work, acknowledgements from the research team, a blank page, abstracts in 2-3 official UN languages other than English, an executive summary that starts half-way through the page because of fancy typesetting, the second page of the executive summary that finally says something remotely interesting, a third page with an outlook of the report to follow, references, a blank page, FINALLY THE ACTUAL REPORT STARTS DEAR GOD-and I’m already on page 14 out of 60!!!

Perhaps you think I’m judging such publications rituals too harshly-after all they are part of large bureaucracies’ work routines, have occupied a project team for a while and helped to pay the odd bill for a communications consultant or author of a chapter; they have also been carefully edited, underwent several rounds of feedback and, as always, the process is more important than the final outcome anyway, they say...

All of this may be true, but that’s still not an argument against putting a list of abbreviations or a copyright page at the END of the document, is it??!!

Write reports for people, not for the faint chance that someone will be interested in a hand-over-of-printed-report photo-op
I understand that many (UN) organizations still think about reports from a ‘printed, book-like artifact that can be launched by official people with official handshakes in front of an audience’ perspective, but we are now well into the 21st digital century. To me, as someone who is actually interested in many topics covered by reports, who has the time to engage with them and who is a main stakeholder of the audience these inflated documents really don’t do anything for me. I really want to read your research and I won’t think any lesser of a UN organization if their latest report is only 38 pages long instead of 59…

I don’t just want to rant, I’m really not that sort of angry middle-aged academic...so I’m  looking forward to your suggestions of better organizational approaches to sharing research differently-especially in the context of large organizations with lots of output that presumably people should read and use!


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